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The Fire Investigator's New Tools

by Michelle Seaton

Recently, Lieutenant Robert Toth of the Aurora, Colorado, Fire Department had a nagging question about a fire he was investigating. It was a $300,000 single-family structure fire that had started outside the garage in a garbage can. At the time of the fire, the temperature outside was in the low 30s, and it was snowing. Other investigators had decided that the fire was caused by the spontaneous combustion of some discarded wood stain, but Toth had doubts enough to check whether a spontaneous fire was possible at such low temperatures. So he logged onto the

Internet, found the homepage of the stain manufacturer, and sent an E-mail to engineers in its research and development department asking if the product was combustible at this temperature.

"Within 48 hours, I had 10 responses back, either answering my questions or directing me to other sources," says Toth. The researchers and chemists he heard from confirmed that this particular brand of wood stain is combustible at low temperatures. Not only did their answers confirm his conclusions, but they provided detailed documentation about how the fire may have started.

"Now if anyone questions the results of our investigation," says Toth, "we have it all written down, right from the source."

The Internet and E-mail

More and more often, fire and arson investigators are using electronic information sources and new technologies to communicate and collaborate in their work. They're finding that E-mail and web sites can help shorten their steps on specific technical matters. Investigators are also finding that these communications tools can give them greater access to expert opinions and a sense of belonging to a greater community of people who struggle with similar questions. Eventually, new technologies such as digital cameras and video equipment, video conferencing, and new methods of collecting evidence will change the nature of the fire investigator's job. In fact, some people predict that, in the future, an understanding of information sources won't merely be a handy tool for the investigator as much as a requirement of the job.

Ed Comeau, NFPA's chief fire investigator, relies heavily on technical sources of information. Comeau and NFPA's other full-time fire investigator Mike Isner conduct 15 to 18 investigations a year looking at technically significant incidents that might affect NFPA codes or suggest a needed change.

"To find out about fires, we use the electronic clipping service on Compuserve called the Executive News Service," he says. To get in-depth information on any one fire, Comeau conducts electronic searches of individual newspapers on the 'Net.

"On the fire at Rockefeller Center, I sat at home and found out about Rockefeller Center and all of the background information I needed on the New York City Fire Department," he notes. "I was prepared before I even went down there." He also takes his laptop with him on investigations so that he can work through the trip.

"By the time the plane has landed back in Boston, I've completed the first draft of my report," says Comeau.

"From an investigative standpoint, we get all kinds of crazy questions," says Mary Lou Fultz, chief of the explosives section at the Atlantic Forensic Science Lab of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). "It's easy to jump on the Internet and find an answer. For example, someone was asking about a trade name of a product assumed to be an explosive. I couldn't find it in any books, but I found it on the Internet and found out it's really a plastic, not an explosive."

More and more government agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), are using the Internet as an investigative tool.

Even casual use of the Internet and E-mail can yield incredible amounts of information designed specifically for arson investigators. Just visit the International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI) homepage at, and you'll see everything from "facts about fire" and an IAAI membership application to arson photo contest winners and a list of upcoming seminars. If you click on their "links of interest" page, you'll find doorways to dozens of sites, including National Investigative Consultants, Fire Engineering magazine, and the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA). You can access material safety data sheets (MSDS), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) publications, N-numbers of airplanes, and FBI bulletins. You can find information about explosives and terrorism, and general information on criminal investigators. There's even a link to a page called Chemfinder that will bring up MSDS information on any chemical name you key in and tell you how to store it and how to fight fires started by that chemical.

Toth, who maintains the page, says he's always looking for new links that might help investigators, especially since the job of the fire investigator often overlaps with other criminal investigations.

"Most fire investigations of a criminal nature involve other crimes, such as assault or fraud," he says. "So we need to look beyond the strict scope of fire investigations when we look for new information. There's a lot of crossover."

Toth spends about two hours a week researching and surfing the 'Net looking for new sites and gathering information.

Toth also subscribes to three or four mailing lists, or listservs, on which members post questions and comments about their work that are then sent to everyone on the list. List members respond to different subjects, and their responses are also sent to every subscriber. In this way, members can have a kind of online chat in which subscribers can weigh in on every topic. On one of these lists, called Private I, independent investigators share information, from which Toth says fire investigators could learn.

"One guy just posted a notice saying that he thinks some other guy is using a false social security number," says Toth. "He wanted to know how to find out for sure and how much it would cost. Someone wrote back and said, 'Well, on such-and-such a site, they'll do it for free.'"

NFPA operates a listserv for fire investigators on which they can post questions about anything from buying digital camera equipment to the chemical compounds of certain accelerants. Soon, Comeau hopes to make available a digital photo library.

Once people began using E-mail and websites to communicate, it didn't take long for organizations to learn that they could hold online conferences, where people can present papers that participants download and read and to which they can offer comments via E-mail. The conference presenters and participants can be anywhere in the world. One recent online conference on natural hazard reduction had 450 participants, largely because it was conducted as a listserv on which comments and papers were delivered directly to those who signed up for the conference. According to Avagene Moore of the National Coordinating Council on Emergency Management, the best recent online conference was "ACT NOW," hosted by FEMA. Participants called into a chat room, where they could participate in a live, online conversation.

"At the end of two hours, I wasn't ready to stop," says Moore.

There's a lot of information on the Internet, says Toth, but you have to know how to find and use it, or it's easy to waste hours and hours browsing. He feels that the investigator's best electronic source is still E-mail.

"Let's say you go to the NIST homepage, and you find an article about testing or a fire hazard," says Toth. "Now, the person who wrote this may have two years of study that went into the creation of this article. If you see the E-mail address at the bottom of the article, you can write this person with a specific question. Literally, you're consulting with an expert on that subject and bringing him or her into your investigation."

Comeau agrees that E-mail is a very powerful tool.

"I work with a fire investigator in Melbourne, Australia, and I'm not even sure what the time difference is between Boston and Melbourne. With E-mail, the time difference goes away," says Comeau.

Interactive training and evidence collection

The Internet isn't the only new information source available to investigators. A partnership of fire service organizations is forming to create an entirely new kind of training video, one that's almost like a game. Organizations including NFPA, IAAI, ATF, USFA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and American Reinsurance will together create a fire investigation from beginning to end from which students will learn the basics of burn pattern analysis.

"We'll actually be burning a small bungalow," says Steve Austin of IAAI. The producers will then take digital photographs of the "arson" fire and measure the thermal dynamics, gases generated, heat released, and smoke content.

"We'll be placing in the house some other, possibly accidental, causes of fire," says Austin.

When the interactive video is done, students will see the house on the screen as though they're entering it themselves, and they'll be able to zoom in on the photographs of the burn patterns to gather evidence.

"This is cutting-edge technology," says Joe Toscano, an assistant vice president at American Reinsurance, a direct writer of reinsurance and related services. "The digital imaging will allow students to put their eyes on an individual object."

Hopefully, says Austin, students will be able to view the evidence of the fire and learn to answer questions about how the fire started and spread at their own speed.

This new project is a follow-up to-and perhaps an extension of-the popular video called "Motive, Means, and Opportunity," produced by American Reinsurance. In this video, students can see an arson investigation from the moment the match is lit to the final cross-examination question in court. The video also comes with a computer disk that contains 200 pages of support material for instructors and students. So far, the video has been incredibly successful. More than 2,500 copies have been made available in several countries.

According to Toscano, the fire investigation community has been starving for a training tape of this scope. He's certain that the new project will not only help give investigators a baseline of training information, but help the fire service community set the standard for how technology can be used.

"The fire investigation community shouldn't have to play catch up," says Toscano. "It should, and can, take a leadership role in terms of how technology can be used in training."

Beyond the Internet and the classroom, new technologies will also change the way investigators collect information at the scene. Some units are already using canines to sniff out accelerants that don't show up in other tests. The Tennessee Valley Authority and the USFA are working together to develop something that will influence the way investigators collect and retrieve answers to technical questions in the field. Their transportable rapid information package (TRIP), which is a kind of virtual office that can be deployed in the field to provide real-time information collection and retrieval, will have communication modems that allow access to satellites for transmitting information and will allow for digital video recordings, so that investigators can videotape evidence at the scene, then transfer the digital video directly to the prosecutor's office. Other advancements incorporated into this TRIP will allow investigators to use satellites to mark the exact position of pieces of evidence, making taking measurements at the scene obsolete.

Where investigators stand

Of course, most of this is still on the way, and some say the fire investigation community has a lot of work to do to get ready for the changes ahead. Although computers have already changed the workplace in many fields, some feel that the fire service is lagging behind. Hollis Stanbaugh, director of arson control and emergency preparedness at Tri Data Corporation, a public safety management and consulting firm, agrees. She says that the greatest technological challenge isn't how to revolutionize investigations, but how to get people to use the technology that's already available.

"Right now, some fire investigators are on the brink of using new technology that's just being developed, but many fire investigation units that I've visited are still on the paper system," says Stanbaugh. "So, for them, even using a computer would be a big jump."

Rather than trying to communicate with fire investigators around the globe, says Stanbaugh, investigators could be using computers to better communicate with members of their own investigative units. They can compile statistical information in monthly reports on the number of investigations and their results. They can keep a master names index that they can plug into to find out if any of the suspects being interviewed at a fire scene have criminal records. They can create a master file on insurers and adjusters for various properties. They can use the USFA Arson Information Management System (AIMS) to document aspects of their cases and create databases. And most investigators could be using NIST research and fire models to reconstruct fires. Stanbaugh says that few units use as much technology as they could to make their jobs easier.

"There's a big gap between what's available and what people are using. It's almost as though we need to bring the fire investigators up to speed on existing technology before we plan the next step in technological advancement," says Stanbaugh.

"I disagree," says Dr. David Hooton, a performance consultant who specializes in the field of fire. "Often, technology doesn't take hold until there are major shifts. I don't think there's a need to bring people into the current technology. There's a need to bring them directly into tomorrow's technology."

Hooton points to the evolution of the personal computer. In the early days, computers and word processors were crude and slow and hard to use. As they became faster, more efficient, and able to do more, people began to use them more.

"Computer models are fairly difficult to use, so most people don't. As soon as they're simplified, people will use them," says Hooton.

Of course, that's a two-edged sword. If users are drawn particularly to models that are simple to use, but which may not be the most accurate or proven models, the quality of investigations could get worse, not better. There are some signs that this has already happened, with expert witnesses testifying in court on the likely development of fires, based on models whose assumptions don't match the conditions at the fire site.

NFPA 921, Fire and Explosions Investigations, has been scrambling to stay ahead of the new technology and has a wealth of information-with important cautions and limitations-on how to do scientific fire investigations right.

And when more investigators start using these tools, the very nature of the tasks that fire investigators can and will be expected to perform will change. For example, when high-tech presentation tools, such as videoconferencing, are brought into a courtroom, the number and quality of experts available to testify suddenly increase dramatically.

"It gets easy to bring a large group of experts together. When more experts are used on cases, the job requirements of the fire investigator change," says Hooton. "In the future, coordinating expert witnesses may become more important than understanding certain technical aspects, such as the inner workings of a circuit box."

Not only will investigators have to help coordinate the huge amounts of evidence that new technologies will yield, they'll have to stay on top of new developments in building and construction equipment and new types of accelerants. They'll have to spend time every day, as Toth does, looking at and evaluating the latest information sources and investigative tools.

"The days of sitting in a courtroom and saying, 'Believe me, I know what I'm talking about. I've been doing this for 30 years,' are over," says Toscano. "If investigators haven't learned that technology has a place in the courtroom in the last five years, they're about to. Technology isn't something investigators read about, it's something they should participate in."

--note: The boxed text below appeared as a sidebar in the original article--

USFA and U.S. TVA Police Interagency Partnerships

In a unique interagency agreement, the U.S. Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Police and the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA's) U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) are developing the Arson Intervention and Mitigation Strategy (AIMS) 2000. One example of their cooperation is a "virtual office," called the transportable rapid information package (TRIP), designed to support on-site investigators at the scenes of fires, explosions, and disasters.

Built as a rugged, field-deployable platform, the current unit consists of a Pentium-grade laptop computer, digital and video cameras, a scanner, a color printer, a global satellite positioning system receiver with computerized mapping, fire modeling programs, and a CD-ROM library of essential investigative protocols and reference materials. Controlled by an internal power distribution supply, the unit can run off 110 volts ac, 12 volts dc, or its own self-contained batteries. A rugged case protects the configuration while it's being transported. Based on an existing U.S. military design, the unit provides for real-time collection and analysis of engineering and technical information. Investigative templates, historical case studies, and technical information are carried on a compact CD-ROM library. Built-in fax, data, and network communications are standard, allowing investigators to access and forward text, photographs, and video data from the field to other information management systems while on site. The unit can increase an investigator's productivity significantly and can later be used as litigation support to help prosecutors.

In cooperation with the unit's manufacturer, the U.S. TVA Police make timely hardware and software enhancements that reflect lessons learned from FEMA's major fire investigations program, which reviews major national cases such as the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings.

Enhancements made this year are based on an ongoing survey of fire, law enforcement, and disaster management experts. Also coming are three-dimensional scene reconstruction software, more secure data communications, interfaces for satellite telephones, televideoconferencing, modem and wireless network interfaces, and an evidence label printer.

Starting in May 1997, this unit will be demonstrated in combination with a satellite telephone at various remote sites and at the National Emergency Training Center, simulating emergency conditions during which cellular service is unavailable. For further information on this project, contact Kenneth J. Kuntz of the USFA at (301) 447-1271 or David J. Icove at the U.S. TVA Police at (423) 632-2527.

Reprinted from NFPA Journal, May/June 1997, p 80-86. Reprinted by permission of NFPA Journal.

Please contact the NFPA Library (617) 984-7445 or e-mail for more information.

This article appears courtesy of Munich Re America, Inc. formerly American Re-Insurance Company.

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