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Origin, cause, circumstances


December 13, 2007
By IVAN HANSEN

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Work towards the area of origin. There is a powerful urge to go straight to it...

20When I was a cop, I walked in and saw ‘burnt black crap!”, said Doug Horn, a fire investigator for the Office of the Fire Marshal (OFM) in Ontario. “You must be careful not to let it be overwhelming. Work towards the area of origin. There is a powerful urge to go straight to it, but the problem is – you may miss something.”

Horn is an instructor for the Fire Cause Determination course I was taking, during was my first visit to the venerable Ontario Fire College in Gravenhurst, on the shores of Lake Muskoka. The course was two days of theory, with one day of practical exercises.

“This course is unique in that it brings together police and fire officials,” said Romaine, himself a former member of the RCMP. “Police will see what information fire has to offer, and how observations at the fire scene will impact on the investigation. Fire will get a better understanding of where their responsibility ends, and police responsibility begins.”

Our class included 27 students from the fire service, and seven from the police service.

Why do we investigate?
“We investigate a fire to find the root cause to prevent it from happening again. The focus changes when we suspect a crime,” Fire Investigator Gerry Bartlett said during the course.

And from Wayne Romaine, Supervisor – Field Investigations with the OFM: “Public fire safety is also a big part of what we do. The new smoke alarm law in Ontario was driven by what investigators found in the field.”
In Ontario, fire investigations are mandated under The Fire Protection and Prevention Act, 1997 (FPPA) and it says in part: “It is the duty of the Fire Marshal to investigate the cause, origin and circumstances of any fire or of any explosion…” (FPPA Part III 9. (2) (a) ). Under the act, fire chiefs and fire prevention officers are designated Assistants to the Fire Marshal.

The OFM investigates all fatal fires and critical injury incidents. They also investigate gaseous explosions, suspected incendiary fires, large loss, and multi-unit residential fires.

“We have the luxury of specializing,” said Romaine. With just 27 dedicated fire investigators, however, the OFM attends a mere five per cent of all fires in the province. The rest are investigated by the fire service. Therefore the fire service is responsible to protect life, property, and evidence.

According to the IFSTA Essentials of Fire Fighting Third Edition (pp. 491-497) and the Ontario Fire Services Standards, a firefighter’s responsibilities include conscientiously establishing the cause of every fire.

Responsibilities of the police include investigating crime, maintaining security and continuity of a crime scene, and providing forensic expertise (Ontario Fire Service Fire Cause Determination Participant’s Guide, April 1999, Ontario OFM, pp. 2-8).
Once there is reasonable suspicion that a fire is arson, the fire service must stop all searching and investigating, call the police and OFM, maintain continuity and security of the scene and prepare accurate written notes.

Origin and cause
“Origin and cause is the heart and soul of the course; we support and build on this,” according to  Romaine.
“We are not arson investigators, we are fire investigators, regardless of where it leads,” Horn stressed to the class. “It’s critical that you approach the investigation with an open mind from the start. Don’t fall in love with your theory, and don’t make any final determination until it’s done.”

Fire investigation demands a systematic approach, and a scientific method. The investigator must interview the first arriving fire crew. What was seen en route, on arrival and during suppression. 

Starting with a perimeter search, an exterior exam is made. Particular attention is paid to doors and windows. For the interior exam, the premises are divided into manageable sections, and rooms are approached from the area of least evidence of burning to the area of most burning. The room and area of origin are divided up.
The area of origin is generally the lowest area with the greatest charring or damage. Fire burns upwards, and a “V” pattern is often seen, the base of which may be the point of origin. The fuel first ignited is found, and a competent ignition source established. Static, friction, arcing, chemical reaction, open flame, and lightning are possibilities.
“Don’t read occupant behaviour into it. Under stress, people do illogical things; you can’t account for it. Don’t
say the occupant did or didn’t do this, therefore it must be arson,” said Horn.

For fatal fires, Fire Investigator James Allen explained to the course that for this type of investigation, the team includes the fire service, coroner, pathologist, OFM and police. Under the Coroner’s Act, the coroner has absolute jurisdiction, and others must co-operate. An inquest may be held to determine who, how, when, where and by what means did a victim die.

Explosions: Horn talked about explosion investigation. 
He related how witnesses often describe hearing a “whoomph” at a deflagration, or a “sharp crack” or “bang” at a detonation. The danger of another explosion must be mitigated and structural integrity and the possibility there are hazardous materials present must be evaluated.

“If (the investigation) can’t be done safely, and can’t be made safe, then don’t do it — walk away,” Horn warned, noting the standard for a  perimeter is 1.5 times as far as the furthest piece of debris at the incident site.

Electrical: Fire Protection Engineer Eerik Randsalu discussed electrical investigation. His points of note included: nothing electrical should be touched, until the power is confirmed off and the area of origin is approached by working along the path of electricity. Expert assistance is available and in Ontario includes the OFM engineer, ESA inspector, and CSA Audits and Investigations personnel. During the investigation, the product listings of
suspect electrical materials or appliances (CSA, ULC) have to be authenticated and recalls have to be checked with the manufacturer.

Vehicle fires: Allen covered vehicle fires. These are highly toxic, so the vehicle should be ventilated for 24 hours, or SCBA used. Test burns indicate that properly functioning vehicles are difficult to burn. Studies in Hamilton and Toronto have found that 80 per cent of vehicle fires in their response areas were incendiary, as outlined in the Cause Determination Participant’s Guide.

Another aspect of the investigation involves interviewing suspected fraudsters. Romaine advice in interviewing this type of person: “Their success is in practicing a story for you to believe. Our success is in taking them to a place they have not practiced, beyond the story or before the event. People prepare to hide under the umbrella, until lightening strikes.”

Fire Investigator Larry Cocco spoke to the course on evidence collection and offered these points: notes should be made as soon as possible; the fire scene needs to be completely photographed before removing “exhibits” – an exhibit is anything capable of being examined by the courts; and samples are to be collected in clean unused mason jars or glass vials. If the exhibits are too big he suggests using nylon bags. All samples need to be labelled, he stressed.

Practical training
To put our instruction into perspective, we were involved in realistic scenarios. The class was divided into six syndicates. Instructors played various roles, including owners and occupants. 

Given guidelines for creating the syndicate presentation, each team was assigned a fire to investigate. These included six “cells” –  a living room, bedroom, kitchen and three vehicles. The rooms were essentially carpeted plywood shacks inside of which various household items had been staged. 

Instructors had set up the scenarios in advance, with causes being either accidental or incendiary. 
After preparing the cells, they burned them.

New to the program was a “complete burn” which simulated a total loss fire. To find evidence, we placed debris in a sifter, which was a wooden tray with a wire mesh bottom.

My team included four firefighters, and two police officers. We were assigned a vehicle fire. Starting with the perimeter, we searched the scene, systematically working towards the area of origin. Before we could complete our examination, however, Romaine arrived on the scene, playing vehicle owner “William Burnski.” As Burnski had a vested interest, we kept him away from the car. Firefighters interviewed him initially, but when the story started to sound suspicious, Burnski was interviewed by police. Burnski’s “friend” arrived (Allen), and after being asked some pointed questions, quickly departed the scene. Later, Burnski told police that his friend admitted torching the car to “help him” collect the insurance.

We found a used road flare discarded near the driver’s door. Parts were missing from the engine compartment, there were unwanted car parts discarded inside the car, and the stereo had been disconnected. We found the keys hanging on the indicator arm. The fire had been confined to the passenger compartment.

We took photographs, collected and labelled several exhibits, and made a careful diagram of the vehicle. In an actual investigation, debris from the floor would have gone to the Centre of Forensic Sciences.

My group determined that combustible material had been placed at floor level (the area of origin), with the source of ignition being open flame (flares). The circumstances also corroborated our finding that the cause was incendiary*.

After each presentation, videos of the scene were shown which had been taken both before and during the fire. This was an excellent training tool. Watching the fire start and spread, it was interesting to note how closely our hypothesis matched the actual events, and to see what we may have missed.

Whether the fire cause is accidental, incendiary, or undetermined, it’s a good thing when we can start to make sense of the “burned black crap” at the fire scene.

*Author’s note: An instructor directed me to omit certain details; our presentation to the class was more specific. 
Ivan Hansen has 13 years of service with the Oakville (Ont.) Fire Department and is an acting captain. He is certified as an Advanced Emergency Medical Care Assistant, and is currently enrolled in the Company Officer Diploma Program at the Ontario Fire College.


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