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Forensic Investigation: Fire, Arson, Explosion Scenes, and Devices

Presented by:
Tom Minnich and
J. Ronald McCardle

The following is a brief overview of the National Center for Forensic Science and a synopsized view of a survey of fire and explosion scene investigators conducted by the Task Working Group for Fire and Explosions (TWGFEX)-Scene Group. It includes the history of the Center as well as a brief discussion of the Task Working Group for Fire and Explosions (TWGFEX)-Scene Group that was established in August 1999.


The National Center for Forensic Science (NCFS) was founded on March 17, 1997, when the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and the University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando, entered into an agreement authorizing the creation of the National Center. Legislative initiatives sponsored through the United States House of Representatives Subcommittee on Crime were instrumental in designating the UCF as the site for the National Center. The UCF worked with the staff of the subcommittee to obtain additional federal funding for Fiscal Year 1998 through the NIJ. This allowed the UCF to proceed with a plan to create a national center asset to enhance the ability of law enforcement professionals to combat terrorism.

Federal legislation set the goal of the NCFS to assist in the fight against terrorism by creating a unique laboratory facility designed and staffed to provide technical assistance to the forensic science and law enforcement communities. The first anti-terrorism effort of the NCFS was the hosting of the National Needs Symposium in August 1997 to bring together fire and explosion professionals from both laboratory and scene specialties. These professionals met to identify problems encountered in the performance of their duties and to propose solutions to these problems. A direct outcome of the Symposium was the formation of the Technical Working Group for Fire and Explosions (TWGFEX).

The major role of the NCFS is sponsoring TWGFEX and fostering the development of national guides for the collection and analysis of fire and explosion debris. TWGFEX committees will develop guidelines and NIJ will publish and distribute them after a widespread consensus review has been conducted. The NCFS, with the guidance of its Advisory Board and in cooperation of the NIJ, will then take steps to assist in the implementation of these guides at the federal state and local level. The NCFS will provide the law enforcement community with training, research, and tools to effectively improve the quality of fire and explosion investigations. High on the list of needs to be fulfilled by the National Center was the creation and maintenance of an ignitable liquid reference collection (IRLC). As a service to the forensic laboratory community, NCFS created and is maintaining a sample repository of ignitable liquids. Samples of ignitable liquids were obtained from petroleum refiners and distribution centers in the U.S. Each sample was characterized instrumentally and the data placed in a Web accessible computer database of instrumental data, password protected and is available to the forensic community. When working a suspect arson case, the forensic lab analyst will analyze the fire debris collected at the fire scene. If an ignitable liquid is found, the analyst can attempt to characterize the liquid using in-house reference liquids or can consult the NCFS-IRLC database. To aid in the characterization, the analyst can obtain a small sample of the reference liquid from NCFS. Access to the IRLC permits forensic laboratory analysts to characterize the fire scene residues in a quicker and more efficient manner and to provide more effective testimony in court.

The NCFS will also support the forensic science and law enforcement communities by conducting fundamental research in forensic science, providing tools to enhance efficiency and effectiveness, and promoting the use of electronic media to access and exchange information. Additionally, it will facilitate the development of quality processes within the forensic science community by identifying laboratory needs, promoting cooperation and exchange between NCFS and the forensic science, law enforcement, academic, government and business communities, and responding to new forms of terrorism with the above mentioned tools and processes.

Establishment of the TWGFEX Scene

In February 1999 the TWGFEX-Scene was established to meet the needs of the fire/explosion scene examiners. The group at that time also established the mission, goals and structure of the working group. The mission statement of the group is to establish and maintain nationally accepted programs for the forensic investigation of fire, arson and explosion scenes and devices. To accomplish this mission the TWGFEX-Scene created four committees. The four committees are: Fire and Explosion Scene Procedures Committee, Training & Education Committee, Safety Committee, and Job Requirements & Certification Committee. Each committee will be responsible for identifying the needs of the fire and bomb investigative community and recommending strategies in order to meet these needs. The committees have met several times, and during the August 11 & 12, 1999 meeting set committee goals and objectives. The following is a brief overview of the committees' accomplishments and planned activities prior to the March meeting:

Training and Education Committee

The direction for committee was set and that is: to identify and draft criteria for required training materials based upon survey results.

When the criteria is developed by the committee, they will identify , collect and review five established training programs that meet or exceed the criteria

Establish and identify training needs into two broad areas; first responder and fire investigator

Divide the committee into two sections to work with investigative specific issues (bomb and fire)

Reiterated that the committee will not "re-invent the wheel", but identify those training programs already available and establish a benchmark. The committee can then identify any needed training or expanded training that is not available and recommend to NCFS the areas of need.

Fire and Explosion Scene Procedures Committee

Reviewed survey and is preparing specific questions for further analysis of survey data

Identify any guidelines that are existing and review those guides

Identify resources and recommend which resources that would reside in a Resource Library housed at NCFS

Job Requirements and Certification

The Job Requirements and Certification committee is working very closely with the Training and Education Committee to coordinate the training needs with the requirements and certification needs.

Develop a model for Knowledge, Skills and Abilities for each discipline in the fire and bomb areaDevelop and recommend a minimal certification model for maintaining fire and explosive investigators' professional standards

Develop and recommend generic fire and explosives investigators job description models to new and existing fire and explosive unitsDevelop and recommend sample Memorandum of Understandings and Mutual Aid agreements for agencies to use in developing task forces

In addition to the above committees the Safety Committee and the Scene Response Committee have reviewed the survey and are developing objectives and tasks for their respective committees.

Safety Committee

Safety and health related resources would be recommended for the TWGFEX resource library to be located at the UCF facility. These resources will be available to all staffers attending functions in Orlando and will also be available to staff at the facility.

Resources might also be made available to field and other personnel with need to know, at all levels of government, via the Internet with security built in as necessary.

Additional resources might include listing of points of contact for agency or private sector expertise in various areas of field safety and health.

Continuing Committee Work

All of the committees are using the survey data as the benchmark for the work they will be completing. Overall, the committees are excited and are in the process of collecting supporting materials for review in an attempt to identify those areas that are weak. The committees will especially be looking at those areas which survey participants have identified as important and correlating those areas with training materials already available.

An important part of the committee work will be to identify those areas where training is lacking or weak and recommend to NCFS what can be done to alleviate the weak areas.

The committees are also reviewed two documents from NIJ, "A Guide for Fire/Arson Scene Investigation", and "A Guide for Bomb Scene Investigation"; to identify and recommend training requirements needed to meet the objectives for these guides. These documents are know available. Check the NCFS website at for details on obtaining the documents.

As a result of the TWGFEX's Laboratory Fire Group, Laboratory Explosion Group, and the Scene Fire and Explosion Group working together it is presenting a unique and long overdue opportunity for each of these disciplines to interact and gain knowledge of what is required by each group in order to accomplish their individual missions and more importantly to develop a working partnership to meet the overall goals and objectives of developing and maintaining nationally accepted programs for the forensic investigation of fire, arson and explosion scenes and devices.

Development of the TWGFEX-Scene Survey

In order to identify the needs of the fire and bomb investigative community the TWGFEX-Scene prepared a survey and sent it to over 1,400 investigators throughout the United States. Over 420 of the surveys were returned and the results of that survey were provided to the committees at a November 10, 1999 meeting. This survey provided the committees with a framework for identifying not only the needs; but will provide valuable information on what program areas need to be addressed.

Synopsis of Survey Results

The following are some of the results from the survey. The full survey and results can be viewed on the NCFS web site at as well as other important information relating to work being done at the center.

Demographics of the Fire/Explosion Investigator

The survey revealed that the investigative field is male dominated with 408 of the respondents being male and only 14 respondents being female. The average age of the investigator who completed the survey was 44 with the minimum age being 24 and the maximum age for an investigator being 75.

The survey results indicate that of the 422 individuals responding to the survey, over 90 percent are directly involved in fire investigation.

Of the respondents who answered the survey, less than 10 percent were involved in insurance/private fire investigations. The majority of respondents were public fire/explosives investigators. Of those public investigators answering the survey questions, 61.5 percent had arrest powers with 38.5 percent only having investigative responsibilities with no arrest powers.

The agencies responding included State, local, Federal and private investigators. State and local represented 72 percent of the responses, Federal; 11 percent and private 17 percent.

The experience level of the fire investigators averaged 14 years; the average for explosion investigators was 11 years. The graph indicates the experience level of the respondents.

Several survey questions dealt with arrest powers, years of experience in fire, years of experience in explosives, the number of investigations per year in both fire and explosives and the average age and educational level of both supervisors and non-supervisors. Sixty-one percent indicated they have arrest powers. The responses indicated that the average fire investigator has 14 years experience, the average bomb technician has 10 years experience and there is an average of 11.6 years experience in explosion investigation.

Investigators Workload

The survey indicated that 79 percent of the respondents had less than 10 investigators assigned to fire/explosive investigations, with 21 percent having more than 10 investigators. These investigators performed from 1 to 100 investigations per year according to the survey, with the minimum investigations being 5 and the maximum being 400. The mean for investigations performed was 56 for fire investigation and 9 for explosion investigators. The graph below indicates the fire investigations being performed.

Education and Training

The educational background of varied. It was interesting to note that only one respondent had a degree in Fire Investigation. The remainder of the respondents had varying degrees of education as noted in the below doughnut chart. The degrees included 5 in Mathematics, 15 in varying Sciences, 33 Arts degree, 10 Engineering, 43 Criminal Justice, 21 Management and 13 in Fire Protection.

In regards to training in fire area respondents indicated that the mean for training as a student ranged from 1 to 400 hours per year, with the mean being 67 hours. As seen the majority of training hours are between 40 and 80 hours, indicative of one and two week courses.

In regards to training in the explosive area respondents indicated that the training as a student ranged from1 to 500 hours per year, with the mean being 60 hours. As seen the majority of training hours are between 40 and 80 hours, indicative of one and two week courses. Note: this chart represents both the post blast investigators as well as the bomb technicians, which accounts for the higher number of hours of training as seen in the chart below.

Of the 422 respondents to this question as to formal training, 50 percent of the explosion investigators had formal training. Federal Training at 156 hours was the highest number of hours for training. This response was apparently from Bomb Technicians who attended Federal training.

Of the areas of training importance, all areas were in the range of 5 to 7 with 7 being the highest priority. Identification of bomb components showed the highest importance with Bomb Threat Management Procedures being the lowest. However, the bomb threat management procedures still scored a 5.13 out of a scale of 7. So all areas of training in the bomb scene field proved to be important to the explosive investigator.

In response to the question as to the number of investigations should be used for qualifying individuals to conduct explosive scene investigations 11 to 25 received the most responses with 1 to 10 being second. It was interesting that the investigator felt that 1 to 10 would qualify an individual, however, many of the respondents apparently do not see a large number of explosive scenes in their jurisdictions.

Certification of Fire Investigators

This certification does not include Bomb Technicians who are required to be certified by FBI/HDS(Redstone). According to the survey 72 percent of the respondents indicated they were certified with 28 percent indicating they were not certified. Although 72 percent indicate they were certified, only two private agencies (the International Association of Arson Investigators and the National Association of Fire Investigators) are known to have certification programs. Some states also have certifications programs, however, some agencies listed such as the National Fire Protection Association, and the National Fire Academy, do not certify fire investigators. Therefore, the results of the survey in this area poses a question as to the number of investigators who are "certified." The National Center for Forensic Science is exploring a program that could lead to a standardized certification program for fire/explosion investigators in the upcoming future.

Task Forces

Only 30 percent of the total respondents indicated that they are a member of a formal task force. Although task forces are extremely effective in the investigation of arson, many departments cannot provide full time personnel to task forces due to budget constraints.

Safety Issues

It was interesting to note that in the area of safety, the respondents reported the use of respiratory equipment was the least important and they used it sparingly at scenes. This was the lowest in importance at 3.9, with the remainder of the activities ranging from 5.13 to 6.66 with 6.6 locating the center of the blast.

The survey is extremely important and will be providing the TWGFEX-Scene Committees with a information for identifying not only the needs; but is providing valuable information on what program areas need to be addressed.

For instance, as a result of the laboratory survey two new courses of instruction for laboratory personnel have been developed and offered throughout the U.S. It is hoped that similar courses will be developed and offered through NCFS that will meet the needs of the fire/explosive investigation community that have been identified through analysis of the survey results.


Tom Minnich Is a Technical Manager with the National Center for Forensic Science (NCFS), University of Central Florida, Orlando, Florida, responsible for managing the Technical Working Group for Fire and Explosions (TWGFEX) Scene Investigators. Is also an Associate of Kufta Associates, Ltd., Fire Investigation and Consulting Firm, specializing in fire/arson cause investigations and investigations dealing with all aspects of insurance fraud. Former Branch Chief responsible for managing the Fire Management Programs Branch for the United States Fire Administration. Managed fire and arson investigation projects, public fire education projects, residential sprinkler projects, wildland/urban interface projects, and programs relating to national fire and building codes. Retired from the Pennsylvania State Police. As a Pennsylvania State Police Trooper he was attached to the Fire Marshals Office that is responsible for the investigation of fires.

J. Ronald McCardle is the Major of Special Operations and Professional Standards, Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigations, Division of State Fire Marshal, State of Florida Department of Insurance. With the Bureau, he has specialized in fire and explosion scene reconstruction since 1981.

With over 30 years experience in fire and law enforcement service in the area of fire causation. Ron has been a Fire Service Minimum Standards Instructor since 1974; and a Law Enforcement Certified Instructor specializing in cause and origin, fire behavior, fire deaths and explosive and/or incendiary devices.Ron's current duties with the Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigations involve coordinating and supervising the Special Operations and Professional Standards section which includes response to major fire scenes and/or disaster situations, Crime Intelligence Analyst section activities, Explosive Ordnance Disposal Units, K-9 Program, and training activities.

During his career Ron has conducted numerous classes for various fire and law enforcement agencies and insurance adjusters. Subjects taught in these classes include Cause and Origin, Incendiary and Explosives, Firefighters' Responsibilities, Electrical Fire Causes, Fire Death Investigations, Mobile Home Investigations and other phases of fire investigations. He is the instructor for the Eight Week Fire Investigation course at the Florida State Fire College specializing in Cause and Origin, Latent Investigation and Post Blast Investigations.

He is affiliated with the International Association of Arson Investigators, Fire Findings, Florida Sheriffs Association, International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigations, Florida Advisory Committee on Arson Prevention and National Center for Forensic Science. Through the National Center for Forensic Science, Ron is one of the committee chairs in a Technical Working Group for Fire/Arson and Explosion Scene Planning Panel and assisted in writing the National Institute of Justice publication "Fire and Arson Scene Evidence: A Guide for Public Safety Personnel".

Ron has qualified many times during his career as a fire cause and origin expert, an electrical expert and fire death expert in civil and criminal courts at the State and Federal level.

Chapters' Corner

Former Director and Chairman of the IAAI Certified Fire Investigators Committee Kirk Hankins attended and addressed the recent California Chapter's seminar in January. Kirk reports that, that Chapter had an outstanding seminar. We congratulate Director Tom Fee and the California Chapter for their training prowness.

Speaking of seminars, the Colorado Chapter had its seminar the same week as California's. The IAAI's Chapters Committee Chairman was in attendance for much of that seminar. He delivered a message from IAAI President I. J. Kranats to the members. The chapter had a fine presentation on electrical and automotive fire causation. Colorado Chapter president Bob Toth and his committee should be commended.

The Kansas Chapter had a seminar in the first week of February. First Vice President Lloyd Johnson, representing President Kranats (who had a conflicting civil deposition) addressed the 200 members in attendance. He spoke of the importance of IAAI membership and our organizations training. He also presented a view of the continuing plans made by the officers of our IAAI for the future.

In another arena, an idea to form a Maritime Chapter of the IAAI has been recently presented by IAAI Liaison Martin Jaekel of Canada. He will be working with the Nova Scotia Chapter and members of the fire investigation community in that region (hopefully with our assistance) to form a larger chapter. We wish them good luck.

Speaking of new chapters, IAAI Liaison Jamie Novak has been corresponding with Ulf Erlandsson of Sweden. Ulf reports that the Swedish Chapter's seminar was a success. At that seminar were many members of the Denmark law enforcement community who are interested in possibly forming a chapter. Our Chapters Committee will be contacting them. Additionally, it may be possible that investigators from Finland and Norway may be joining the Swedish Chapter until they can form their own chapters as well.

In closing, remember that the IAAI is the only truly "International" organization for professional fire investigators. Please help recruit members in all our regions so that we can become even stronger. As President Kranats has said, It costs less than fourteen cents (US) a day in dues to belong.

Please send any items of interest you wish to be published to the Editor or Co-Editor. Until next time, stay safe. The IAAI Chapters Committee.

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