Here's the scenario: Firefighters respond to a house fire to find a woman and infant dead. Two men – the woman’s husband and his brother, who lives in the basement – escaped the blaze. They both have different versions of what happened. Who is telling the truth?
The case is hypothetical -- laid out by Brian Grove, fire protection engineer with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ research laboratory -- but the questions it poses are a routine part of fire investigations. To help better read the clues left behind by a fire, Howard County Fire and Rescue Monday conducted a fire experiment with ATF during a live burn in Ellicott City.
When investigators arrive on the scene during or just after a fire, they comb over a structure, starting from the outside and working their way in, looking for clues as to what started the fire, but they also talk to witnesses, gathering statements about when and where the fire started, how quickly it spread and how everyone who escaped made it out, according to Eric Pina, special agent and certified fire investigator with ATF.
“If everything meshes together? Perfect,” Pena said. But if not, investigators have to figure out, "What’s the most likely thing that happened here?”
Monday's experiment will help train students at the National Fire Academy to be able to answer that question. ATF instructors filled the house with items one would expect to find -- furniture, clothes, toys – and some not-so-standard instrumentation.
Thermocouples give investigators temperature readings from floor to ceiling; sensors measure the heat on certain surfaces and radiant heat in certain rooms while cameras show how the blaze moves in the first few minutes, before smoke obscures their view.
With the information gleaned from the data, officials will design course materials to be used in a fire investigation class at the National Fire Academy that should be useful for years, Grove said. Students will be presented with pictures, “witness” statements and the data, then asked to figure out what really happened.
Using sensors from the house and a witness profile, students at the Fire Academy will be able to tell if the burns the man suffered are consistent with the temperature on the railing, or if his description of where the fire started is consistent with the video.
ATF officials worked with HCDFRS for weeks to set up a house and a scenario. The house is one of five donated to the fire department by Sheppard Pratt for training purposes, according to Battalion Chief Eric Proctor; it is the third to be burned so far.
See the video from a previous live-burn exercise on the Sheppard Pratt grounds.
“We are extremely proud that the ATF Fire Research Laboratory has chosen to partner with our department in creating a course that will be offered to firefighters all over the country,” Fire Chief William Goddard said in a statement.
“Arson is a very real crime and this experiment will provide some of the groundwork in equipping our investigators with the skills needed to combat it.”
Although ATF is a federal agency, its expertise is often sought after local investigations, Pena said, because of the resources it can offer.
“We recognize that cooperation with our investigative counterparts is essential in combating violent crime," ATF Fire Research Laboratory Chief John Allen said in a statement. "This week’s training exercise is a prime example of how federal, state and local agencies work together to help protect the public and make our communities safer.”
Training will resume on Tuesday when, ultimately, the entire structure will be burned to the ground.