Change in requirements for fire investigations leave more 'undetermined'

Friday, August 3, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:30 p.m. CST, Wednesday, November 19, 2014
As a fire investigator for the Columbia Fire Department, Lt. Shawn McCollom McCollom goes to fires where he takes pictures and notes to make an analysis of the cause and damage of a fire.

COLUMBIA — Sometimes a light bulb just goes on in your head.

Or, in the case of a mobile home fire investigation Steven Sapp conducted in the late 90s, it was a melted light bulb. It pointed to the bathroom.

So Sapp, a former fire marshal, had a look at the bathroom. Next, he got underneath the home, looking for wires — anything that might tell him what made the home burn. He spotted a charred object he couldn't identify. Carefully, he picked up the object, which had two wires protruding toward a hole in the bathtub just above it.

The person who lived in the mobile home told Sapp that the object was a water heater for the tub. But it was a type of heater that was popular in the 1950s and meant for use with cast iron tubs, not the fiberglass variety in the mobile home's bathroom. The heater got so hot, it melted through the fiberglass tub, drained the water and ignited the fire.

"The fire’s trying to tell you a story, and you’re trying to decipher that story the best you can," said Sapp, who served as a fire marshal with the Columbia Fire Department for 15 years before recently moving to the Columbia Public Works Department.

Sometimes, however, the fire's story is a mystery. That may well be the case with the Brookside on College fire on May 27, which caused an estimated $7 million in damage.

Although no one was injured, future tenants had to decide whether to remain with Brookside or break their lease. Forty percent of residents will now be allowed to move in to the College Avenue complex on Aug. 18, instead of Aug. 14 as originally planned. MU classes begin Aug. 20. The remaining residents will be placed in Stephens College residence hall until Oct. 15 when space will be available in Brookside, according to an email Brookside management sent to residents. 

Throughout the investigation, the owners of Brookside, Jon and Nathan Odle, and Brookside management, have declined media requests for interviews.

The rumor mill cranked up fast and hard after the fire at the complex, which sits at the northwest corner of Walnut Street and College Avenue. Many of those rumors suggested that fire investigators were looking at a "whodunit," not a "howdunit," Sapp said.

But in its most recent press release on July 27, the fire department announced that the cause of the fire is still undetermined — not an unusual outcome in the modern era of scientific fire investigations.  Compared to 30 years ago, fire investigators are much more likely to conclude that the cause of a fire is undetermined. Fire investigators say there are some very good reasons for that.

Science vs. guesswork

Fire investigation used to be more art than science. However, these techniques led to what some consider wrongful convictions, such as the case in Texas of Cameron Todd Willingham. Many fire investigators now believe Willingham was wrongfully executed due to outdated investigation techniques.

These outdated techniques, Sapp explained, such as measuring the depth of char to determine how long a fire had been burning, are scientifically unsound. Many of the old theories that proved arson had occurred have now been debunked.

The change is showing up across the nation in the numbers: In Texas, between 1997 and 2007, there was a 60 percent drop in the number of fires considered arson, despite the number of fires remaining the same. The majority of the fires Sapp worked on as an investigator were unintentional or had an undetermined cause, he said. He saw very few fires he could determine were intentionally set.

In 2011, the Columbia Fire Department investigated 188 fires of which 13 were intentionally set. These intentionally set fires caused $100,495 in loss.

The main engine of change for how fire investigations are conducted has been the adoption of the National Fire Protection Association Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations, known to fire investigators as NFPA 921. This guide, adopted in 1992, has created a set of guidelines for fire investigators to follow and a scientific method for them to apply.

"There was not a whole lot of guides saying 'This is how you conduct a fire investigation.' People kind of developed their own methods and theories on how to get to determine what kind of fire we have," said Lt. Shawn McCollom.

McCollom is an assistant fire marshal for the department, which has five fire marshals who enforce the fire code, conduct fire investigations and handle public relations. He has been in the position for five years after spending five years as a firefighter.

Sapp said some investigators still struggle with NFPA 921.

"I’ve seen this a dozen times before. I know what happened. Can I scientifically prove it? No," Sapp said.

The Missouri Division of Fire Safety developed the Fire Investigator Course in 1986. The 40-hour certification program requires passing an examination to receive a license. Investigators must also take recertification exams throughout their careers.

Degrees of burnt

When a fire occurs on the second floor, McCollom will start his investigation in the basement.

"If you were to follow me at a fire investigation you would think that I’m crazy and I don’t have any idea what I’m doing," he said. In order to determine a point of origin, fire investigators work from the least to most burnt sections of the structure.

"It seems like an incredible waste of time, but it’s truly not," McCollom said. "It’s a scientific process of getting down to a particular site."

This method of least-to-most burnt determined the area of origin for the Brookside fire to be in the southeast corner.

Although an area of origin was determined for the Brookside fire, it’s a very large area that didn’t help narrow the list of possible causes. The April 1 fire at O’Reilly Auto Parts remains undetermined, but the area of origin was much smaller allowing for a more specific investigation of a possible cause Sapp said.

"You know, (when I was) brand new I’d show up, I’d look at these fires, and you just look around a room and say, man, everything looks exactly the same. It’s all burned, it’s black," McCollom said. "After doing it a lot, you kind of see that it’s not all the same — not all black and burned. It’s varying degrees of damage."

The amount of time spent at a scene varies, but all entail photos so investigators can  re-examine evidence. Only after their own investigation of the scene do investigators turn to interviews for clues.

Who done it

When fire investigators arrive on the scene, the last thing they want to hear are firefighters' opinions about the origin and cause of the fire. They strive to develop their own opinions from the scene, not from outside sources.

The Brookside fire was so high profile that it was difficult for investigators to not hear the other voices or the so-called "Monday morning quarterbacks," Sapp said.

"There were a lot of people wanting to tell us that they knew'‘who done it' because they were sure somebody had done it," he said. "Quite frankly, as far as we know, the evidence was never really there to say it was a who done it. It’s still a ‘what happened.'"

After the scene investigations, interviews began for the Brookside fire, which were extensive. "We interviewed every single person that walked on that site," McCollom said.

He said a lot of the interviews were with people such as subcontractors, construction workers and bystanders. Interviewers were looking for that one piece of information that could open up the whole investigation, McCollom said.

The fire department asked for help from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the State Fire Marshal’s office and Columbia Police detectives in conducting the huge number of interviews needed for the Brookside fire investigation. Despite Columbia having five fire investigators, their other obligations continued, and resources were stretched thin. Those other offices provided staff who specialize exclusively in interviews to aid with the workload.

Walking away

What could remain unfinished, in a sense, is the investigation: It’s quite possible that the cause will remain undetermined for the Brookside fire, Sapp said.

That’s because the strict rules from NFPA 921 state that if a fire investigator cannot scientifically prove how a fire started, the cause must remain undetermined.

"That’s hard in the mindset of a fire investigator," Sapp said. "Their job is to be able to determine that, and it’s very hard for them to walk away from a fire and say have a pretty good idea. You know what happened. You just can’t physically prove it, and so you got to mark it as undetermined and walk away from it."

The act of putting out a fire can even make determining a cause difficult. An estimated 2 million gallons of water were used in battling the Brookside blaze. What the fire did not destroy was likely moved or displaced by the strength of the spray. It’s also possible that a fire can cause such extensive damage that finding the cause can be impossible.

"There was a three-story building there that morning," Sapp said. "When we get there, a third of it to a half of it is just simply gone. It’s on the ground — gone."

"I know some great fire investigators but I don’t know many that can resurrect a scene from the ash," he said.

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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