ROD AMMON: Welcome to this edition of the IAAI CFITrainer.Net® podcast. Many fire investigators who work in the private sector are either self-employed or work for fire investigation firms or related industries. There are many aspects of private sector employment that differ greatly from the public sector, which is where many fire investigators start their career. In this podcast, we’ll take a look at the business of being a fire investigator in the private sector. We hope you can take some of what you learn today to help you and your career. Joining us to discuss the topic are Mike Schlatman and Steve Carman. Welcome to the podcast, gentlemen.
MIKE SCHLATMAN: Thank you. I’m honored to be here.
STEVE CARMAN: Thanks a lot, Rod, nice to talk with you today.
ROD AMMON: I appreciate it very much. So why don’t each of you sort of give me a brief background, your company or the position that you’re in now, and sort of what’s going on and we’ll move on from there. Mike?
MIKE SCHLATMAN: I’m the President of Fire Consulting and Case Review International in Lenexa, Kansas, and I’ve had a very good career as a fire investigator, having started as a police detective, and then later being hired by a national firm, and then later starting my own - after five years, starting my own business that was way back in 1985 and have been operating ever since.
ROD AMMON: Awesome. How about you, Steve?
STEVE CARMAN: Well, I have been running my own company for about seven years now. When I first retired from a career with Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, I decided that I wanted to go work for myself. I’d worked for other people long enough, and even though I didn’t know much about business or how to structure a company, I gave it a shot. For the first six years, I ran a sole proprietorship where it was just me, and this last year, I’ve started a small corporation and I’ve incorporated one other employee.
ROD AMMON: Great. That gives us a little bit background, Steve, on how you set things up. Mike, do you want to talk about that transition before you - right as you left - I guess in this case you did public sector to private with a corporation, but then you made this jump into your own business. Do you want to talk a little bit about how you did it?
MIKE SCHLATMAN: Sure. Having the basis with the national firm, I learned a lot of things that I needed to know to become a - to go on my own, and one of the things I learned is how to structure reports, expert reports in fire investigations, and also how to relate to clients, and nobody can teach you this, but how we relate to everyone. So my primary transition problem from the public sector to the private sector was the report writing because there’s quite a difference in a public service and private investigation report.
ROD AMMON: So what was the spur? What - is there something you want to talk about that sort of made you decide, hey, it’s time for me to be on my own?
MIKE SCHLATMAN: Yes. What happened was the clients continued to call me directly and only wanted my services, and so therefore, I was lucky enough to have impressed enough people that it came to me that I could be working on my own, and it would be more lucrative.
ROD AMMON: Okay. Steve, we’ll start out with you on this question. Tell us about how each of you are seeing today’s fire investigators getting employed in the private sector. Who hires them, and why do you think they’re getting hired?
STEVE CARMAN: Well, that’s a good question. Some investigators are being hired by large companies like Mike talked about. There are several national-sized firms that have locations in different spots around the country, and they focus on getting new investigators to join them and then are able to teach what they want these investigators to know. Other investigators are deciding from the get-go that they want to work on their own and are going to try to get out there and learn as they go so to speak. I think there’s probably some other companies that want to hire someone for in-house consulting, people that have a lot of experience perhaps as engineers or - but not necessarily in the fire investigation field, so it’s kind of a big spectrum there as to who wants to work for a large company versus a smaller firm or for themselves.
ROD AMMON: What are you thinking, Mike?
MIKE SCHLATMAN: I’m thinking in addition to that, and now it’s even more - become more prevalent is many of the students that are going through college and getting a degree in fire science are joining firms. The national firms usually like to hire them straight out of school and then give them the experience. In my particular case, what I do is I take firefighters or policemen that are interested in fire investigations, and then we make sure that they get enough work as - we call them diggers. We go out and dig a bunch of fires and show them hundreds of fires over - I’ve got a three-year training program, and then what happens is they transition and eventually get their IAAI CFI, at which time we teach them how to do reports and then they go out on the road. There’s no substitution for experience. You must have fire investigation experience and be able to actually see the fire scene and be able to interpret it, and we help them do that by training.
ROD AMMON: It’s interesting, Mike, your transition is more similar to mine and what I remember my father telling me about corporate America, and I think a lot of folks that are counselors in business say start out at a big company before you go do something on your own. But, Steve, with you, you’ve got something with a large federal agency. Talk about what that was like, and there’s probably some relevance to that in some of the folks that are in state or even local.
STEVE CARMAN: Well, working for ATF, I was very fortunate that in the early 1990s, ATF took an approach to teaching its investigators that was slightly different than many locations, and what they did was they focused our training at the university level and at the scientific level. It’s been clear that the transition of fire investigation has been going more towards science-based work and away from the previous description, if you might, of the art of fire investigation. So for us, with a lot of the exposure that we had with the science and the engineering and that sort of thing, we were able to get into a position that while we might not know the specific format of a report would be needed by an insurance company or perhaps a product manufacturer, that’s the type of thing that I at least took a chance that I could learn without too much trouble. I thought that what I brought to the profession was the science and engineering angle and that that’s how I was going to market myself, and I figured that with regards to nuances of reports or formatting, things like that, that I could learn that as I went, and so far it’s been not that difficult for me and it’s - even though the private sector is different than the public sector, it’s worked out pretty well.
ROD AMMON: Congratulations on that.
MIKE SCHLATMAN: I want to agree wholeheartedly with Steve on that. The - our whole profession is more scientifically based and properly so. We need to continue through CFITrainer.Net and through taking advanced courses to study the science. The people that are starting to replace us older investigators have that basis and need to have that basis. What we can do is we can pass on to us, and I believe it’s our responsibility to pass on to them, our experience, so you’ve got to continue going to classrooms, not only CFItrainer.Net, but classroom training.
ROD AMMON: Good point, and well, I know a lot of folks are doing that. We can see an increase in both places. More and more folks are going to what would be called the residential or live courses, and certainly a whole ton of folks are up at CFItrainer.Net. So let’s talk a little bit about the transition from public to private as far as the daily job goes. Mike, I know it’s been a little bit longer for you since that transition, but I’m sure you remember the differences, and why don’t you start out and then Steve can pick up. Day to day, you’re in public sector. What’s different?
MIKE SCHLATMAN: What’s different is you have to go out and sell yourself. You have to go out to new clients and market. You have to market your services, and also you had to learn - and I remember this the most clearly - bookkeeping and accounting. When you’re a small firm or a single proprietor, you have to learn how to handle everything. You have to learn how to pay taxes. You have to learn what kind of information you have to give to accountants at the end of the year to file your taxes. You have to even learn that there are taxes different if you’re a corporation than a private person. So those are the things that you had to learn when you first transitioned. It was the more challenging to me because I wasn’t used to going out and having to actually do all the accounting and the administration. The - selling myself to clients came naturally for me, but it’s more difficult for some people to actually go out and talk to strangers, and I know that Steve, because I’ve known him for many years, has that ability.
ROD AMMON: How about you, Steve?
STEVE CARMAN: I would wholeheartedly agree with Mike. I came from 30 years in federal service, and I was not a businessman, and I didn’t really know how to set my own business up or anything like that. Fortunately, I did find that there’s a lot of great resources out there that could help, help make decisions as to what kind of equipment you needed to run an office, how to find an accountant, the kinds of records you needed to keep. A particular publisher out there that’s called Entrepreneur Press proved invaluable to me with the many books and flyers and things like that that they offered to help me learn how to do it, and it turned out to be much easier than I had feared ahead of time.
The other thing that was probably the most difficult for me, and it may sound strange, but it was trying to figure out what I wanted to charge because having been a public servant for 30 years, it meant nothing to me to go out and work 12, 14-hour days and not be the least bit concerned about what I was going to get paid. I knew what I was going to get paid, so that was very difficult for me, and I’ve talked to other people that have found a similar - found themselves in a similar quandary because we weren’t used to asking for money, and that was a big surprise for me that it was as difficult as it was.
ROD AMMON: I love what you’re saying about focusing on what you want to do, and I think at the same time, focusing on your own expertise. For instance, I know that you get involved with Marine fires and you have a lot of science background, and that’s been good for you. So talk about the mental thing. For me, as a business owner, it was a big mental game to go from working at a corporation or going to working for another small firm. All of a sudden, you wake up one day and you’re it unless you have a partner or some other people. What do you do to sort of set yourself up so that you can get out of that shock and start to move into a successful business?
MIKE SCHLATMAN: Well, in my view, you have to be a self-starter, and so what you have to do is you have to get up every day and go out there and try again. Courage isn’t about being loud. It’s about getting up every day and doing it again. I think that because it’s you and you’re risking your capital and you’re risking your family’s income, that you have a motivation to do that, and so you get out there. Once you determine - as Steve said, once you determine what direction you want to go in, then you do your research. You go out there, find out where the clients are, and go out and sell yourself. You develop marketing materials. You make sure you have business cards of course. You get a telephone number and a website, and you can build your own website now for almost nothing, and you get out there and market yourself.
What’s hard sometimes is the fear that the phone will not ring. It rings too much this week and then it doesn’t ring next week. Don’t worry about that. If you’ve done your homework and you’ve gone out there and have these clients, they will call you, but they’re going to only call you on a per-case-need basis. So that’s - you asked about fear. That’s one of the fears when the telephone doesn’t ring. Is it ever going to ring again?
ROD AMMON: I remember - I’ve talked to a lot of freelancers that work with us in the production industry, and one of the guys says, you know, every day, every booking is my last day of work, and even after 15 years, they don’t know how to deal with it sometimes mentally. How about you, Steve?
STEVE CARMAN: I would totally agree with that. That’s been - one of the fears that I had early on is how am I going to be able to get clients? And while I did come up with a webpage and it was the normal thing of passing out business cards and shaking hands and talking to folks at different conferences, things like that, I also would wonder am I going to get called? For me, most of my marketing has been word of mouth. I do a lot of teaching around the country, and I think because of that, I’ve met - had the opportunity to meet a lot of people. I would recommend that for people that are planning on getting out, that ahead of time, before you retire or leave public service, find out who works in your area in the private sector and get out and talk to them. Ask a lot of questions.
Most of the people that I have spoken with have been more than willing to share what they’ve got, so everything from their rate schedules to contracts they use, example reports and so on, and that has been very, very beneficial. It’s - we have a very fortunate situation I think in that our career is not necessarily all dog-eat-dog. We - most of us like each other. We know each other, and when you work in this industry for a while, you’re going to find out you see the same folks over and over again. And so there’s a pretty good camaraderie out there that can support us.
MIKE SCHLATMAN: I want to agree with that. If you have a skill, you have a specialty that you can impart to others and you can go around the country selling that skill by presenting these classes and you don’t charge for that even, you will get clients because they will see you. That happens all the time, and I have a national client that sends me all over the country because they saw me in a seminar actually. So isn’t that - if you have that, that’s a way in. Your local arson task force, your state chapter of the IAAI, your province, whatever entity that is teaching fire investigation and you have background in that area, get out there and present a class, and you’ll get feedback and you’ll also get clients.
ROD AMMON: Okay, so let’s switch gears. There’s a lot of folks out there that I’ve known in business and that I’m sure you both know in fire investigation or in the public sector community, and, Mike, you had said you’ve got to be a self-starter. Some folks aren’t, and they’re great workers. They go to work. They’ll work their butts off for you, but at the same time, maybe they shouldn’t be in business for themselves, I should say. What would you recommend to them? Where would you look?
MIKE SCHLATMAN: I would look at the national companies first because they’ll have a lot of openings, but you must, in many cases, be willing to move from your area, or in smaller firms. Smaller firms are more regional, and they have openings just like everyone else, and if you’re talented and you’ll get to know them while you’re still in the public service, as Steve said, and they’ll share with you what their rates are, and they’ll - now they won’t - I mean, in the - generally it’s - the smaller firms either employ you as a full-time person with benefits or they’ll hire you on a per case basis, and then you’re getting an hourly rate. Make sure though that it’s clear that you’re going to be - if you’re - what your status is. Are you part-time employee? Are you an independent contractor? Because independent contractors are going to get a 1099 at the end of the year, and you’re going to have to pay your taxes.
ROD AMMON: Steve?
STEVE CARMAN: I would also recommend that for those people that don’t feel confident in running their own operation to take a look at some of the larger national companies. There are several of them out there. I would recommend that you talk to people in your area. Find out who’s got a good reputation because I think it’s going to be important not only to hook up with a company that has a lot of numbers and gets a lot of fires, but some place where you’re going to be able to learn. The one thing about our field that I think is different than a lot of fields is we’ve gone through some incredible changes in the last 25, 30 years in terms of the way we do business.
You don’t necessarily want to get stuck in a big company just because they offer more security if you’re not going to learn anything and you’re not going to be able to advance yourself, because when the time comes for you to go to court or to a deposition or whatever, it’s still you on the line, and it’s your reputation, and so you need to continue learning and building up your own expertise as you go along. Some companies are, frankly, better at offering those opportunities to new employees than others are, and so I would look for that.
ROD AMMON: That’s a great point, too. So I want to go a little off script here and think a little bit about what we could take, a gem, from each one of you. Steve, seven years is long enough, so you’ve had to have an experience or two that you might want to share, and Mike, I know you’ve got several, so for you it might be harder to think about which one, but why don’t you each pick one thing that you think about from a day in being in business for yourself where you went, aha or wow or boy, I never thought of that that you’d want to share with the folks that are listening.
MIKE SCHLATMAN: I guess the aha or the surprise moment for me was the - when I found out that I was on a registry for experts for - both insurance defense firms and for plaintiffs firms and defense of criminals firms, frankly. It was - they called - the aha, aha was that I had proven, apparently, myself over time in the - in deposition and in trial testimony that I was added to a bunch of these lists. I think the surprise was that I was on this - I was on a list for the death penalty defense firms, and I mean, for the states, and that was to - in fire cases, of course, it’s a specialty, to find out, to evaluate the prosecution’s case. That is a - that’s - I think that’s the biggest aha moment I’ve had in my career, frankly.
ROD AMMON: So I guess you had to make a decision about how you were going to deal with that and set some priorities for yourself so that you could move forward.
MIKE SCHLATMAN: Absolutely, and the decision was that I was going to, just as per the IAAI code of ethics, remember that we are truth seekers, not case makers, that we’d rather have a guilty person go free than an innocent person convicted, so therefore, I evaluate each particular case as to its merits, its validity, its scientific basis. And if it’s lacking, I will tell the truth.
ROD AMMON: How about you, Steve? Any insight or aha moments or some gem that you’ve learned in the past seven years or unexpected happenings?
STEVE CARMAN: Surprisingly, it’s the same thing as Mike. For me, when I started in law enforcement in this field, I remember thinking to myself as a young investigator that I don’t think I would ever be able to take a defense case because I had the impression back then that the defense attorneys and the defense bar was out there to get guilty people off, and I think that’s kind of a black-and-white view of a lot of young people in law enforcement. But when I got into this field, I was - in the private sector, I was given a couple of opportunities to take a look at a case, and I got involved with an innocence project case in California, and I have to tell you, it felt very awkward for me to be talking about a case that I found several mistakes made in and that would potentially be going against the prosecution.
And what I realized was despite how I had thought about things, there’s an awful lot of people out there just trying to do the right thing, and they might not understand fire science as well as others, but that what we need to do is to do our very best to get the truth out there, like Mike said, and that is a huge part of how my company works, and that is we definitely are truth seekers, and we will not sell an opinion to anyone. We’re going to tell you what we believe is the truth, and you can take it or leave it, but that there are cases both in the criminal defense side, product manufacturing defense, things like that that may not be popular amongst some potential clients or adversaries out there, but those cases still might have some very strong scientific merit that there’s nothing wrong with telling the truth.
In fact, that’s the right thing to do, and that it was just a surprise for me to find myself into that position and finally recognize that, wow, when you were a young man, you were thinking some pretty silly stuff. And so it was just quite an eye opener, because when we’re in the public sector, we’re pretty much all working on one side, and even though I don’t think any of us intend not to tell the truth. I do think that we go into it with somewhat of a bias simply because of who we work for and the agencies that we’re associated with.
ROD AMMON: Yeah, it’s a position.
MIKE SCHLATMAN: And I agree with that, and on top of that, and I use it and I know Steve does, we use it as a teaching tool for other public service people. I mean, we don’t name names and everything, but we’ll use circumstances, and we’ll teach other fire and police people not to make these mistakes because it will result in - not a conviction, in a person going free. I’ve used it many times, and I’m on - and as I said, it’s - and it’s not a betrayal. This is the hardest part for a lot of public people to believe, that it’s not a betrayal when you have an opposing expert that has a different opinion. They can - everyone has a right to their own opinion. We sell our skills, our education, our experience, not - and our time. We don’t sell our opinions, so we - if there’s mistakes made, we learn from those mistakes. I’ve made them and I’ve learned from them.
ROD AMMON: It’s - well, it’s just awesome to have been able to work with you guys, two real honorable men who I know have done a lot of - or made a lot of contributions to fire investigation, both in I think your day-to-day jobs but as well as what I’ve seen you do with the IAAI and sharing your knowledge, whether it was live or whether it was on CFItrainer, so I know a lot of people are really grateful. Am I missing anything? Is there something you feel like you just want to share before we wrap this up for today?
MIKE SCHLATMAN: I do want to share one thing, and that is this. You must continue reading. You must continue studying. You must stay current, the Fire & Arson Investigator magazines, CFItrainer.Net, classrooms, plus classrooms, and follow 1033 and 921. You’ve got to continue reading these, and every text, Kirk’s Fire Investigations, any text on fire investigations you must continue to read or otherwise you’ll fall behind, and you won’t be worthy of our specialty fire investigator.
ROD AMMON: Steve?
STEVE CARMAN: I would agree with that. I think Mike hit on a very good point. We are in a very evolving field. The rate at which our knowledge about fire science changes is tremendous. The other thing I would strongly suggest is before folks get out of public service, try talking to the people that are going to be opposing you at the trial or at deposition. Find out who those experts are because the chances are, even though you look at them as the adversary and you’re trying to beat them at the game, they may have some real good knowledge out there, and they may very well be just like you were. They may have been public employees or whatnot, with a lot of experience, a lot of knowledge, and you might learn from them.
The big thing I think for a lot of fire and police departments is that they tend to isolate themselves from the private sector kind of looking at the private sector with a jaded eye, that oh, well, they’re out here for money or whatnot, but that’s not always the case. I mean, certainly they need to make a living like we all do, but there’s a lot of people that are just out there to find the truth, and if you open yourself up to that possibility, you might learn an awful lot ahead of time, not only about how you might be able to function in the private sector, but also about the very basics of our profession. And I would not put on a defensive shell that we sometimes see in the police and fire department business, particularly with law enforcement. Open yourself up a little bit and even if you don’t necessarily take the tack that the other folks are trying to put out there, at least you’ll learn a little bit in the process.
MIKE SCHLATMAN: Amen to that.
ROD AMMON: We appreciate both your time and expertise on this important topic. Thanks very much, Mike and Steve.
Now with some information from the International Association of Arson Investigator and some news. With some recent changes in the makeup of congress, it’s a good idea, as an IAAI member, to become acquainted with your new congressional members and encourage their membership in the fire caucus. The fire caucus is the largest bipartisan caucus on The Hill. It protects the interests of those in the fire service. Please encourage all congressional members to support the Assistance to Firefighters Grant, AFG, which provides funding for CFItrainer.Net.
As mentioned, in the January issue of Fire & Arson Investigator Journal, the IAAI will host two events in Washington, D.C. to provide IAAI members the opportunity to meet and schedule meetings with their local federal legislators.
These events will be scheduled around the CFSI National Fire and Emergency Services Symposium and 27th annual National Fire and Emergency Services dinner, which happens April 15th through the 17th, 2015. The theme of this year’s program is The Future Depends on Informed Leaders. If you plan to attend, be sure to register at cfsi.org and let us know so we can be sure to include you in our IAAI events. We will have a short meeting at the beginning to provide IAAI talking points to encourage your local congressman to join the Fire Services Caucus if they’re not already a member. If you’re coming in, it’s best to schedule appointments with your legislators prior to your arrival so you will have some dedicated time to meet with them or their staff. Please RSVP to past president Roger Krupp. His email address is roger dot krupp dot email@example.com.
In some other training news, we’ve got an upcoming training event, a 40-hour Fundamentals of Fire Investigation, happening in Bowie, Maryland. That’s March 9th through March 13th this year.
The IAAI 2015 ITC this year is in Chicago, Illinois, May 17th through the 22nd. That’s going to be at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare at 9300 Bryn Mawr Avenue, Rosemont, Illinois. Go to the firearson.com page to learn more about that and register for the upcoming event. Again, that’s the IAAI’s 2015 ITC Chicago happening May 17th through the 22nd.
That concludes this podcast. Stay safe and we’ll see you next time on CFItrainer.Net. For the International Association of Arson Investigators and CFItrainer.Net, I’m Rod Ammon.