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Five Innovative Ways to Use interFIRE VR

Cathleen Corbitt

When the development team was discussing the design of interFIRE VR, a dichotomy quickly emerged. We recognized the value of teaching and encouraging the "Team Concept" approach to fire investigation, yet we were aware that many fire investigators are solely responsible for carrying out all the fire investigation duties and tasks. During the content development process, we constantly walked the line between encouraging the practice of a team investigation, yet providing a realistic path for investigators who are on their own.

The message of the fire investigation protocol delivered in the interFIRE VR Tutorial is clear on this point. Although the team approach plays a prominent role, the content is written so that it doesn't matter whether one or many carry out the investigation. However, this is less clear in the Scenario. Partly by design and partly by the technical constraints of single workstation delivery, the Scenario is by definition worked by a single computer user, albeit with the assistance of a few "virtual officers" who you can send to perform duties like crowd canvassing or locating a witness. The committee's thinking on the pedagogical reason for a single-user, multi-role model was threefold:

  1. The majority of fire investigators are examining the scene on their own, or with minimal assistance, and should thus practice and train for this reality.
  2. Investigators who work on a team and fulfill a single role, such as a photographer or an evidence technician, will benefit from the "cross training" of working an entire investigation on their own. They will be able to see the investigation from a the vantage points of the other professionals whose skills and insights complement their own.
  3. Professionals whose primary responsibility is not fire investigation, such as fire service, police officers, insurance adjusters, and attorneys, should work all aspects of the scenario to gain a broad understanding of the fire investigation process "from call through court".

Placing one user at the center of the Scenario or as the single point of view on the Tutorial's investigation protocol has the beneficial effect of immersing the user in the experience, involving them in pacing their own learning, and understanding the investigative process from beginning to end. However, it may also unintentionally place blinders on the user, making them unable to see the other ways that interFIRE VR can be employed to make our communities safer. Here are five innovative ideas for how to extend the capabilities of interFIRE VR into new applications.

Team Up

Work the Scenario as a team. Gather a group of your colleagues, call a special Arson Task Force session, set aside a local professional association meeting, or hold a workshop at a conference. Each member brings a laptop or a desktop computer and a copy of interFIRE. Designate a Team Leader and divide up the attendees into Team Concept roles:

  • Origin and Cause Investigation (examining area of origin)
  • Immediate Area Investigation (conducting witness interviews)
  • General Area Investigation (examining rest of property besides area of origin)
  • Photography and Schematics
  • Evidence Collection

Use your judgment in dividing these duties between the number of people you have. Each team member should first review the duties of that position in the Tutorial and any content-related tutorial sections. Then, divide up the Scenario investigation tasks by role and assign them to the appropriate team members. Encourage investigators to talk to each other and share information as they work the scene.

Seat the Photography and Schematics member next to the Origin and Cause member(s) so s/he can follow and take photographs on his/her machine as directed by the origin and cause investigators working on their machines. Place the Evidence Collection member on the other side of the O&C team, so he/she can follow along and collect evidence at the direction of the O&C investigators. The Immediate Area Investigation can work on the witness interviews and locating witnesses, talking with O&C to keep up on the scene examination. The General Area team can move out into the rest of the house and yard, searching for evidence and performing tasks like noting the condition of doors and windows and reporting it to the Photography and Schematics member.

Set times for team meetings, led by the Team Leader, where each participant shares the information they have gathered and new assignments are made. For example, the Immediate Area Investigation may report that they have spoken to the residents and that they insist the space heater was turned off when they left. The new assignment would be for Origin and Cause Investigation to focus on the space heater and determine if it was the cause of the fire.

When all tasks at the scene have been discharged, hold a team meeting to determine the origin and cause. Share all information gathered during the investigation and reach a conclusion. If an incendiary call is made, discuss each of the possible points of support and whether or not they apply in this case. Then, have all members of the team enter the same O&C determination on their individual computers. If the determination is incorrect, assess the feedback and determine, as a team, how to proceed. If the determination is correct, move on to the Follow-Up Investigation.

At this point, reassign personnel to cover the Follow-Up Investigation duties. Assign one person to review witness statements for missed clues. Assign another team member to comb the insurance files and consult with the person in charge of witness interviews to verify statements about insurance given by the witnesses. The evidence collection team member from the on-scene investigation can now review the lab reports s/he ordered. Yet another team member can take the lead on the financial documents, again comparing them to witness statements. And a different team member can review all the fire and police reports for clues. Combine duties if you have fewer numbers of team members. Again, meet regularly to discuss what is being uncovered.

When the Follow-Up Investigation is finished, move on to Report Out. As a group, formulate the answers to the five questions and type them in on one or all of the computers. During the Virtual Prosecutor phase, review these answers compared to the model answers and review and discuss the other feedback measures, such as the status bar performance and the origin and cause determination accuracy. Debrief the scenario with the team, discussing what the team did well and what can be improved. Then, review your own team procedures based on this and adjust how you will approach the next real fire call.

If there is not enough time at a single team gathering to work the scenario all the way through, concentrate on certain aspects of it, such as just the scene investigation, and take up the follow-up investigation at your next meeting


One of the goals of interFIRE VR was to provide a breadth of information on the many different actions of professionals that affect the investigation of fires, including fire suppression, evidence collection, photography, insurance investigation, and trial preparation. Professionals using interFIRE VR may gravitate towards the topics they know the most about or in which they are the most interested. This is a natural tendency and deepens your knowledge in your specialty.

However, interFIRE VR can also be a valuable cross-training tool for disciplines with which you are less familiar. A firefighter will benefit by reviewing the evidence collection Tutorial sections because they describe the types of evidence at a fire scene, their nature, and how they are used to solve crimes. Thus, a firefighter will better understand the clues that are all around him/her at a fire and will be more aware of how to preserve evidence because s/he knows what it is and how it is used. In turn, they will be more observant the next time they go out on a call. A fire investigator will benefit from understanding, in detail, how insurance works in "following the money" and how to involve insurance personnel in the fire investigation. A police officer who may be called upon only to do interviews will benefit from understanding the effect of evidence, both physical and documentary, on the information he/she can obtain from a witness. Next time, the officer may seek out this evidence and work in greater coordination with origin and cause experts to formulate incisive questions involving it.

The next time you sit down with interFIRE VR, select the topic with which you are LEAST familiar. Work that topic thoroughly, beginning with the Tutorial section(s) and then moving into the more specific articles in the Resource File. If your interest takes your further, seek out a colleague in this specialty and talk about how you, in your "normal role", can be of more help in the area you have just learned about.

If you have a more structured environment, such as an Arson Task Force, select a specialty topic, like AK-9 Units, as the focus of the next meeting. Invite your state or local dog team to participate. At the meeting, first review the interFIRE VR material on this topic. Then, have your local dog team advise other team members how they work, how and when to contact them, and what each team member can do to increase the effectiveness of the AK-9 at the scene. Similar presentations can be done on any area of fire investigation, such as evidence (presented by evidence tech or lab personnel), insurance (presented by an adjuster or an insurance investigator), and trial preparation (presented by a prosecutor). Look through the Tutorial for ideas on topics for themed presentations at your local meetings.

Drill Down

"Drilling down" means exploring a single topic in depth, rather than surveying across the breadth of a process. Pick a single topic in fire investigation. Let's take accidental causes. Begin by viewing the tutorial section on this topic ("Eliminate Accidental Causes"). Then, read all the articles on accidental causes in the Resource File (select "Fire Scene Examination", then "Origin & Cause Determination: Accidental Fire Causes"). Here, you'll find specific information on electrical systems, lightning, lamps, appliances, chimneys, heating systems, spontaneous combustion, and human negligence. Read it. Then, go to the Scenario.

Then, approach the scene at 5 Canal Street by just trying to eliminate the accidental causes. Focus only on this topic. Examine every outlet in the room of origin. Examine all the appliances in the room of origin. Check the heating system and electrical panel in the basement. Talk to the first-in firefighter about his observations of how the fire behaved. Ask the residents about flammable materials they may have kept in the house and about the condition they left the room of origin in. Even check the weather report for lightning strikes-after all, it was raining that morning. Try specifying accidental causes during the Scenario's origin and cause determination and work with the feedback you get.

When you have finished the Scenario, find a way to apply your new knowledge to the next scene you work. Seek out an electrical expert in your area and work to bring him/her into your investigative team. Print out the Resource File's "Fire Scene Electrical Checklist For the "Non-Electrical" Engineer" by Kenneth Goodnight. Supplement this with own entries items based on what you've learned and use it at your next scene. Approach your next scene by thoroughly investigating every potential accidental cause, documenting your examination, eliminating it where appropriate, and calling in an expert when the examination is beyond your expertise.

This "drill down" approach will work for a variety of specific topics. Try:

  • evidence collection
  • criminalistics (trace evidence)
  • accelerant evidence
  • incendiary fire causes
  • use of the AK-9 unit
  • insurance investigation
  • financial investigation
  • interviewing
  • fire patterns and fire dynamics
  • working with professionals at the scene
  • firefighting
  • arson prevention
  • investigative toolkit preparation

Focusing on narrow areas will improve your specific knowledge of that area and will allow you to see a scene from a variety of perspectives and manage more angles when you go out on your next call.

Go To Court

Set up a special event for your local professional association, task force, police department, or firehouse. Have the group work the interFIRE VR scenario prior to the meeting, either individually or as a team. Then, divide into three teams or individuals: prosecutor, defense counsel, and expert witness(es). Have the prosecutor and defense counsel each prepare an opening argument for the case at 5 Canal Street, including who is being charged with the crime and laying out the evidence against that person. Ask a local prosecutor or attorney to act as judge and present the arguments in a mock trial. Then, call the expert witness(es) to testify on the case. Afterwards, debrief the exercise, evaluate the arguments and the presentations, as well as the testimony given. If a more elaborate presentation is possible, consider assigning people to play key witnesses in the case, including the defendant. This exercise will give investigators and first responders a better appreciation of how these cases are presented in court and how the fire investigation will be scrutinized at trial.

If a full trial isn't practical for you, set up mock depositions on interFIRE VR with a local prosecutor. Work the scenario before you meet with the prosecutor and then show your case file on the computer to the attorney. Discuss the case and what would be an issue at trial. Then, conduct a mock deposition on the case where you are the expert witness, first with the attorney acting as a prosecutor and then as defense counsel. This exercise will help you sharpen your testifying technique.

Kid Around

Add interFIRE VR to your toolkit for your town's next fire prevention event. The virtual reality house in the scenario provides an excellent opportunity to talk through the points of fire prevention using a real house as an example. Kids will love the Scenario's "game" aspect and, in the process of walking through 5 Canal Street, you can point out fire prevention information in a very real context. Show kids how the closed bedroom doors in the upstairs hallway stopped the fire, smoke and heat that devastated the upstairs bathroom. Show them the smoke layer in the living room using the soiled wall next to the stairs and how the air at the bottom stayed breathable-which is why they need to crawl out of a fire. Use the space heater close to the couch and the extension cords running across the floor to demonstrate fire hazards in the home. Show them the AK-9 unit and explain how dogs work at a fire scene. Get the kids involved in wandering through the house in the VR and ask how they would have escaped this fire if they had been in a bedroom upstairs, a bedroom downstairs, or in the kitchen. Discuss the best places in this house for fire alarms and fire extinguishers. Use the diagram to show kids how to plot an escape route out of this house. In short, apply the many aspects of fire prevention to this real home at 5 Canal Street so kids can learn better how to fire-prepare their own homes.

After the presentation, let the kids play with the software on the laptop. Show them how to move around the VR and collect evidence. Explain to them what fire investigators do and how they do it and why they are important to fire safety. Inspire the next generation to go into the public service of keeping all citizens safe from fire.

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