WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — A lot of work goes into investigating the cause of a fire and it’s a grueling process.
The Rhode Island State Fire Marshal’s Office is responsible for conducting investigations of all fires where arson is suspected, the fire is undetermined by the fire department, and/or an injury or death has occurred.
It’s a high task but there are only a few marshals to handle the workload for the entire state. The investigation unit consists of four investigators and the acting deputy chief.
“A fire investigation is very like a scientific experiment,” Acting Chief Deputy James Given said. “If you think back to high school science, high school chemistry, doing experiments to try and prove something, we’re doing just the opposite, the hypothesis we come up with. We do everything we can to disprove them until we can’t.”
With 30 years of experience, Given has seen it all, but there is a systematic approach investigators take.
“The training involved with the investigators is pretty extensive, it’s ongoing, continuing education, we’re training all the time,” he explained. “One of the biggest things is you have to be an investigator for at least four years.”
The first step is to isolate the area where the fire ignited and begin an extensive report on their findings. Given said it’s a lot of manual work, but a new piece of technology called “Faro” is helping provide more detail.
“This allows us to actually laser scan the entire scene and we can produce walk-through videos and things like that,” Given explained. “We can actually take you through what our investigators saw.”
With the use of Faro and aerial drones, the report could have between 150-200 photos per scene. But from new technology to the old senses, K-9 Dream is also part of the process.
“So Dream lives with me, she’s with me 24/7 but then every morning she’s up before I am and ready to go to work. She doesn’t like days off,” Fire Investigator Hannah Burnes said.
She was trained three years ago at one of the oldest accelerated detection programs in the country.
“She’s trained on about 25 different ignitable liquids that are commonly used to start fires,” Burnes explained. “That could be anything from gasoline, which is the very popular one, to the lesser known things like acetone and lacquer thinners.”
Dream’s ability to sniff out these liquids gives investigators another edge in determining whether the fire is a suspected criminal act. When she finds what she’s looking for, she will alert Burnes by sitting.
“It’s what’s called a passive alert, these dogs are not aggressive with their alerts,” Burnes said. “It’s one reason we use the Labrador Retrievers, the reason being is we don’t want to damage the evidence and we don’t want them to hurt themselves in a potentially unstable fire scene.”
The samples are then sent to the state crime lab at the University of Rhode Island where they will be analyzed and added to the investigator’s findings.
“We’ll have three, four, five fires in a day,” Given said. “On an average, we’re probably out 30 times a month.”
Given told 12 News each investigator has either obtained or continues to work on getting the highest level of certification from the International Association of Arson Investigators.