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QUESTION: How do you train a fire investigator? ANSWER: Carefully!

May 18, 2012

Think about it:  we want these guys and gals to understand fires and explosions, some of the most destructive forces around.  A good fire investigator can look at a fire scene or explosion site after the fact and reconstruct what happened.  Gaining that experience isn’t easy.  Last week a group of fire investigators met in central Washington to go through a week of fire investigation training.  Beginners spent a week studying entry-level fire investigation technique complete with field experience.  Intermediate students studied report writing (taught in part by a County Prosecutor), vehicle fire investigation (with burnt cars to practice on) and scene photography.  Advanced students spent three days in class studying fire and explosion dynamics and two days outside studying fires.  Six ‘burn cells’ were constructed with 2x4s and sheetrock.  Each was a small room, open on one side, furnished and ‘decorated’ by the advanced students.  Each was then ignited using a different ignition technique while fire behavior was studied and recorded.  Just after the cell came to flashover, firefighters extinguished the fires and students went in to see what patterns different fire sets produced and how to interpret these patterns.  Later, beginner students processed each burn cell to determine origin and cause of each fire.  Once completed, they then watched the video to see how well they did.

In the above photo, advanced track students are furnishing burn cells in preparation for ignition.  Prior to this, instructors ignited several flammable liquids on different flooring surfaces (linoleum, carpet, etc.) to show the evidence accelerants leave behind.  In the background rags soaked in linseed oil are heating up to ignite spontaneously and cigarette butts are slowly igniting wood landscape materials while students observe.  An engine company was standing by.




In this photo, instructors have just ignited fire on the couch.  You can see a camera on the floor and temperature probes at multiple points in the burn cell are monitored on a laptop outside.









Here the fire is beginning rollover, an important fire phenomenon.  Ceiling temperatures are getting high and you can see other furnishings igniting.









This cell has reached flashover, a significant benchmark to investigators (and a dangerous phenomenon for firefighters if caught inside).  Radiant heat has ignited the pillows and carpet outside the cell.  Temperatures inside are around 1200° F.







After extinguishment, students interpret fire patterns and relate post-fire damage to actual witnessed fire activity.  An accelerant-sniffing canine team came in and demonstrated how that valuable tool can aid fire investigation.  This experience will help these investigators interpret fire damage on future assignments where they won’t get to witness fire ignition but still have to determine origin and cause.






About 150 fire investigators from across the Northwest participated to gain valuable training.  So the next time you hear about a fire being ‘under investigation’ remember, it’s some of these troops applying real-world, hands-on experience to determine the origin and cause of that fire.

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