Emergency services personnel meet at Fort Knox for annual fire investigation training

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Fire quickly billowed from the simulated apartment, growing in strength as two Fort Knox firefighters waited for the signal.

Once given the go ahead, the lead firefighter cranked the nozzle on the firehose and focused a pattern of water at the entrance of the Conex, careful of his aim as the two worked together to put out the fire. Behind them, several other emergency services personnel captured the action on cell phones, or took notes.

“They’re going in and trying to use as little water as possible. The objective is to preserve the scene,” said Jason Lewis, deputy fire chief at Fort Knox. “Typically, [firefighters] go in and use copious amounts of water – they get the fire out, which is a good thing, but they also wash away evidence and a lot of the mapping that investigators use to pinpoint where it started, and then eventually, what started it.”

An investigator standing next to Lewis offered an explanation after the firefighters extinguished the flames to the first of two Conex’s set up to be identical. He pointed out a white band of charred wood over the door frame near the entrance: “That indicates high heat.”

The white band turned progressively darker as the burn pattern spread further from the door.

“If you take a nozzle and you hit that with a water pattern, you’ll wash all that black off,” he said. “It won’t look the way it ought to look.”

More than 110 emergency services personnel from 65 organizations from as far away as California and Alaska arrived at Fort Knox June 25 to learn advanced investigative techniques at the fourth annual Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Louisville Field Division Fire Investigation Conference, hosted by the ATF Louisville Field Division, ATF Fire Programs and Training Branch, and the Fort Knox Fire Department.

This year’s conference was the second held at Fort Knox.

According to ATF officials, the conference is open to public sector law enforcement personnel, federal, state and local government investigators, and any prosecutors involved with the investigation and prosecution of arson, fire and explosive crimes.

“Hopefully, we can provide some experts to them who can expand their knowledge,” said John Black, senior special agent and certified fire investigator with ATF Louisville, who set up all the training that occurred during the five-day conference. “[This conference] pays benefits not just to those agencies but in working relationships with ATF, as well, and puts us in a better position to help those agencies in the future.”

Fort Knox officials said many of those who attended are fire investigators from varied backgrounds and experience levels. Because of this, Black broke the conference up into two tracks: the basics of investigative work, and more advanced techniques.

For the June 28 class, investigators sat through a four-hour classroom presentation on an overview of some of the finer points of fire investigations before putting that knowledge to the test.

“Basically, we give them an overview of what the rest of the day is going to be like and then, when they come out here, they actually get to see the practical application of it.”

Some of what the investigators learn is basic origin and cause determinations, vehicle fires, fire death investigations, fire safety to include safety during the investigation, federal statutes and legal blocks and the guides and regulations that govern investigations.

“It’s a pretty all-encompassing week,” said Black.

After firefighters extinguished flames to the first Conex, Black told those who had observed the fire scene to go in and look around, take notes about where the fire started and how, and discuss what they learned.

Fort Knox firefighter David Pratt entered and shone his flashlight on rubble to detect fire patterns on the walls and ceiling. Pratt, a former Marine who has been firefighting for 10 years, said he has a much greater appreciation for what investigators face when they try to learn from a fire.

“I didn’t really know what to expect coming here, but now I have a whole different respect for how it works,” said Pratt. “Before, my main concern was making sure the fire was out. I wasn’t going in and trying to damage things but at the same time, I didn’t know what goes into the investigative side. Seeing this gives me a different perspective.

“Knowing what these guys are going to have to do now, I can help them out just by using different techniques.”

While firefighters worked to put out a fire in the second Conex, ignited in a different location from the first one, several experienced investigators in another area walked around two burned out vehicles, analyzing burn patterns to determine where and how the fires started as well as where the fires traveled after igniting. According to Rudy Herout, deputy coroner in Kane County, Illinois, who serves on a fire task force, knowing the nature of fire with other elements normally helps to determine the origin of a fire.

He explained that in his experience, most of the car fires he has investigated are started for insurance claims. As he studied the burned out car in front of him, positing where the fire might have originated and mapping its path onto a sketch given to him, Herout confessed struggling to determine for sure where the fire started.

“Cars are really hard,” Herout said. “It’s good to study the glass. Glass will tell you a lot.”

Nearby, David Cusatis,
a lead instructor for
the conference, walked between the crime scenes, coordinating the lessons.

“I think it’s going great,” Cusatis said. “The burns came out well. We burned the vehicles this morning, and we burned the Conex’s in front of the students so they could see the fire growth and development, which is very big when they’re testifying to that or interpreting what they’re seeing.”

Pratt said everybody can learn from the lessons.

“No matter what you’re here for, whether you’re a firefighter or cop or investigator,
I think it is absolutely beneficial,” Pratt said. “There’s no reason you shouldn’t take something away from this.” n