The MTA is building a $9.5 million facility in Dutchess County to train the growing number of police dogs needed to fight crime in the post-9/11 world, Newsday has learned.
The new training ground -- under construction on 71 acres in East Fishkill -- will be stocked with rail cars, buses and platforms like those at Grand Central Terminal, replicating the environment where the bomb-sniffing canines will toil upon completion of their training.
The facility will be used to teach German shepherds and Labradors how to detect the basic odors of an explosive, the single biggest threat to a mass transit system used by millions every day.
"After 9/11 we had no description of who might hurt us," said Lt. John Kerwick, who heads the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Canine Unit. "We have no idea what the bad guy looks like anymore. The dog knows with his nose."
SCROUNGING FOR SPACE
In 1997, the MTA disbanded its canine unit amid budget constraints. The unit was revived after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 took down the nation's busiest transit system. Eleven dogs were added in 2002. And today, the team has grown to 50 dogs -- with an annual budget of $10 million -- making it the largest mass transit canine unit in the country.
Training the dogs had become a day-to-day search for available space, Kerwick says. One day it was a bus depot in the Bronx, the next a rail yard in Westchester County.
When Kerwick first pitched the idea of creating a training facility for MTA dogs, he was told to see if another of the area's major police canine units -- like one run by the New York State Police -- might be willing to take on the task.
"Listen, the MTA doesn't like to spend a lot of money," Kerwick said. "Let's face facts. So before we could do anything, everybody tried every wiggle way they could."
The other departments told him they couldn't train all the dogs the MTA needed, Kerwick said. One problem was that MTA dogs are trained to sniff out explosives, while police dogs are trained to find narcotics or human beings. Finally, in 2009, the MTA board agreed to buy the 71-acre East Fishkill parcel for $1 million.
While it's already being used for some training, the facility won't be completely ready until June 2014.
The town of East Fishkill was initially taken aback by the proposal, which didn't require town approval, said John Hickman, the town supervisor.
"I wasn't thrilled when we first heard about it," Hickman said.
Kerwick gave town lawmakers an overview of the proposal, promising there would be limited impact on local traffic, Hickman said. Kerwick made further progress when he agreed to let the MTA dogs help out the local police department, which lost its one police dog -- Victor -- in December.
Hickman said it was unlikely the East Fishkill Police Department -- like many small police departments -- would have been able to support a new canine during a time of tight budgets.
"They look like they'll be good neighbors," Hickman said of the K-9 program.
MTA board members like Carl Wortendyke gradually got behind the proposal.
"Of course it's a lot of money, but the dogs are an important part of the whole system of policing," said Wortendyke, who represents Rockland County. "It's more than one-and-a-half police officers. People have a sense of security when they see an animal."
Kerwick's officers have recruited a team of hyper, work-ready dogs who sit by the door every morning waiting for their handler to go to work. Each dog lives with their handler and his family and will continue living with them after they've retired, typically after seven years on the job. Kerwick's dog, Hero, has a habit of waking up every half-hour during the night to patrol the house, Kerwick said.
"When we have a bomb threat to a facility like Penn Station, Grand Central Terminal or White Plains, and we have to really thoroughly search that area, we need a dog that wants to work," Kerwick said.
In recent years, the MTA dogs have responded to more than 1,550 calls every year, most involving bomb scares or unattended packages. The dogs are trained to sniff out bomb-making materials like ammonium nitrate and TNT. They can also pick up a human scent from a cellphone or package and guide their handlers toward the bad guy.
"We just don't look for the explosive," Kerwick said. "We look for the person who's carrying them."
When they're not responding to calls, nearly half of the dog teams are used to conduct routine patrols of mass transit sites. Officers regularly make sweeps through stations, checking garbage cans and stepping on and off Metro-North trains.
"They're not going to come out and do it," Kerwick said of the terrorist threat. "They're going to surveil it first. The minute you stop is the day they may be looking to hurt you."
FIND DYNAMITE, GET CHEW TOY
On Friday, Sgt. Ed O'Flaherty was showing off the work of Falcone, his 3-year-old shepherd, who -- like many of the unit's dogs -- is named for a fallen officer. Falcone was named after Det. John Falcone, who was fatally shot near the Poughkeepsie Train Station in 2011, by a gunman who had just killed his estranged wife. Hero is named after Stephen Driscoll, an NYPD officer who died on 9/11. Driscoll's wife Ann is a Metro-North employee.
Falcone was hard at work, sniffing away at an empty Metro-North car parked at Grand Central. O'Flaherty had hidden some dynamite in the car. The dog's body stiffened as he picked up the scent on a luggage rack. When O'Flaherty rewarded the dog with his favorite chew toy, there ensued a tug of war that Falcone won.
"That's his paycheck," Kerwick said.