Lacking a K-9 unit, the Fairfield Police Department relies on other law-enforcement agencies when the need for a dog's special abilities arises.

However, waiting on others could result in precious minutes lost when a child is missing, an adult with dementia wanders off, a robbery suspect has fled, or a driver is suspected of having drugs in a car.

"You can only detain someone for so long," said Sgt. Suzanne Lussier, a public information officer for Fairfield police.

Looking to put itself on a par with its surrounding brethren, Fairfield police have taken steps to have a dog and handler in place by summer. Lussier, who owns a German shepherd that she rescued, and counts K-9 officers in other municipalities as her friends, put together a proposal for a unit that was approved by the Board of Police Commissioners last month.

The department would love to collect funding for two police dogs to cover the majority of calls for service, both day and night, but its initial goal is to raise money to get at least one canine out on the road with the patrol division. The initial capital outlay will be somewhere around $25,000, which would pay for the dog, training, harnesses, collars and leads, revamping the rear compartment of a patrol car with paneling that lacks door handles, a caging system, a remote door release that would allow an officer to open the vehicle to let the dog out from as far away as 40 to 50 feet, an alarm alert that would let an officer know when the dog is getting too hot, and a bite sleeve.

While Lussier also investigates the availability of grant funding, she said the community needs to step up in order for "Fairfield's Finest" to have a K-9 unit at its disposal. Depending on the financial response, the department might be able to acquire two canines instead of one, or a full body suit for training as opposed to a bite sleeve, Lussier said. She has been passing brochures out to local businesses to help spread the word.

She added that Fairfield police, as of late, are asking for K-9 assistance from other agencies on a weekly basis. "There's always a delay in response from other agencies," said Lussier. "Sometimes we lose a suspect because we can't track right way or there's a loss of evidence."

Lussier noted that Fairfield, directly off Interstate 95, is part of a major corridor that runs between New York City and Boston. Fairfield also is between Connecticut cities, such as Bridgeport and Norwalk, that have a fair share of crime. Officers often pull drivers over who they suspect of having drugs in their vehicle, either because of a person's suspicious actions or the time of day, according to Lussier. However, they cannot force someone to open his or her trunk without probable cause. But if a K-9 officer pulled someone over and the dog "hit" on narcotics in the vehicle, the officer then would be within his or her rights to search the vehicle. Lussier said a K-9 unit would most definitely help to get drugs and many dangerous criminals off the streets.

A K-9 unit, she added, would not only be trained to sniff out narcotics, but would also prove valuable in evidence recovery, locating missing children, locating adults with dementia, and finding burglary and robbery suspects. The addition of a K-9 unit will be an "extra tool to do our job better and make us more effective," she said. In addition to its various duties, a police canine, Lussier noted, will help deter assaults on officers.

Lussier said the dog that likely will join the department will be a German shepherd about 18 to 23 months old. The future handler, she said, will be a patrol officer with at least five to 10 years of experience on the force because he or she would have the "maturity and level of responsibility to take this working dog home to train with it." A handler also has to be ready for a five-year commitment, Lussier added. She said about five officers have expressed in interest in becoming the department's new K-9 handler.

Lussier did quite a bit of research before her K-9 proposal was approved by the police commission. She went to various training facilities and researched companies, brokers and breeders. In the end, it was decided Renbar Kennels was the one. "They will select the right dog for our agency and our handler," she said.

New Milford-based Renbar Kennels, Lussier said, has selected canines for 30-plus police departments from Stamford to New Haven over the years.

After the dog is acquired, the training is completed, and the police cruiser is outfitted, the annual operating expense for the dog will be about $1,000, which will pay for vaccinations, medications, food and grooming. Veterinarian Joan Poster of Westport's Poster Animal Hospital will be donating her services.

"She's familiar with the care and treatment of working dogs," said Lussier. "Such dogs are exposed to things a routine pet would not be exposed to."

Lussier said the Police Department once had a K-9 unit but it dissolved when the handler could not work the schedule assigned by a former police chief due to personal reasons.

Bowling for Bowls, the next fundraiser to support the K-9 unit, will take place at Nutmeg Bowl, 802 Villa Ave., on Jan. 22. Everyone is invited to participate. The cost for adults is $15 and children $12. The event will include prizes, raffles and T-shirts. Those who would like to make a financial donation for the K-9 unit, but cannot attend the bowling event, can write a check to the Fairfield Police K-9 Unit and mail it to 100 Reef Road, Fairfield CT 06824. Anyone with questions, or seeking more information, should e-mail Lussier at slussier@town.fairfield.ct.us.