ROD AMMON: On today’s podcast from the IAAI for CFITrainer.Net, we’re going to have a case study, which is something that many of you have asked for. It’s related to the Seaside Heights Fire that happened a couple years back in New Jersey. It was a Boardwalk fire, and we’ll be talking to Jessica Gotthold from the ATF about her past experience with that fire. We’re also trying something a bit different that’s going to be doing some IAAI news, but hearing it from the folks who actually do the work down at the IAAI office in Crofton, Maryland. We’ll be talking to Chris Burt about accreditation, certification, and designations that go on through the IAAI office today, probably just certifications and designations, and then we’ll be speaking with Kathy Anderson. She deals with membership and membership benefits for IAAI members. But first, let’s talk about the Seaside Heights Fire.
On September 12, 2013, a large fire occurred on The Boardwalk and Funtown Pier in Seaside Heights and Seaside Park, NJ. The Seaside Boardwalk, which spans two towns, is a popular tourist attraction, very busy in the summer, and with mostly seasonal game and food vendors. More than 50 businesses were destroyed in the fire, including the Funtown Pier Amusement Park, which extended out over the ocean. The fire began at approximately 2:30 in the afternoon in the vicinity of Kohr’s Frozen Custard on The Boardwalk. More than 400 firefighters from many surrounding communities fought the multi-alarm fire. Wind and explosions complicated response. The fire was brought under control at 11 PM. One year before the fire, in October 2012, The Boardwalk was severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy and many businesses destroyed in the 2013 fire had been recently rebuilt.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was called in by the local authorities to assist with the investigation of this large and complicated fire. Today, Jessica Gotthold is with us to discuss the investigation of the Seaside Boardwalk Fire. Ms. Gotthold is a recently retired ATF senior special agent, and she was in charge of ATF’s investigation of the Seaside Boardwalk Fire. Ms. Gotthold, welcome to the podcast.
JESSICA GOTTHOLD: Thank you.
ROD AMMON: So you showed up at this fire after being called in to assist. What was your job?
JESSICA GOTTHOLD: My job was to provide resources that ATF had, to be the point of contact and the conduit between the state and local authorities and ATF, to bring in resources like our electrical engineer, our fire protection engineer, Lee McCarthy, our other agents from our local offices to augment the – not only the scene investigation, but the followup, the background investigation, interviews, etc. And it culminated in a media presentation on what was discovered and what we ruled out and how we came to our conclusion.
ROD AMMON: So give us an idea of the complexity of this investigation. We’ve linked photos of the scene from the podcast page to give our listeners an idea of the utter devastation in such a large area. What were some of the challenges your team faced?
JESSICA GOTTHOLD: Well, it was certainly an enormous event and especially for first responders. The wind drove this fire at an incredibly accelerated rate, and being along the seashore there, you constantly have wind, and the good news was that the wind direction was such that it didn’t actually come inland. It just went parallel to the shore.
ROD AMMON: So as investigators, when you showed up to this – or talk to me about it. How did investigators get involved in the scene? When did that start, and what were some of the challenges from the beginning?
JESSICA GOTTHOLD: Well, I got a call directly from the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office and their taskforce, arson taskforce, and the first thing you start with and what they needed, not just scene investigation wise, but they needed resources to talk to people, to do interviews and find out what the first responders saw, what the people on the beach saw when they were – this fire started. The key is really to zero in on who saw what initially and then do a survey of the entire area.
ROD AMMON: So you get a call, and you show up as a representative of the ATF, working with, I think, a task force and some folks, as you had mentioned. How did that happen? What was the meeting like, and how did you divide up all the tasks?
JESSICA GOTTHOLD: The tasks really divided into two parts. There was an interview team where they would do background – get background information on store owners, restaurant owners, who was present at the time, witnesses, first responders, and then there was a physical scene investigation team that was the certified fire investigators, the arson task force, myself, and a number of other state and local investigators. They needed even more resources for the physical investigation, and so I made a phone call and I got a fire protection engineer and our electrical engineer, our senior electrical engineer, and they provided incredible help to the team. In fact, the main report for this fire that pinpointed the origin of the fire and the cause was Mike Keller’s report, our senior electrical engineer. What we found was that over time, salt water, which is – can really degrade many things – that actually affected the wiring and the infrastructure of this area.
ROD AMMON: So tell me about the interviewing. How did that go? How big a process was that, and who took care of that?
JESSICA GOTTHOLD: Primarily the interviewing was done by the state and local authorities, and that began immediately. Even before I was called, one of my contacts – he and his team from the arson task force – they were already – had spoken to many firefighters, business owners, people that were on the beach at the time, and people that were in a restaurant that was adjacent from the main fire building and were literally eating lunch when they first saw smoke and flames, so it was extensive, but it was very well done, very well covered.
ROD AMMON: So that’s a lot of information. So how did you handle that? And let’s just talk about the interviewing part, to have so much information from so many different people, I’m guessing potentially hundreds of people that were – that you guys – or that you all spoke to. How did you get together and have a discussion about that to help you build a case?
JESSICA GOTTHOLD: Well, in a situation like this, you always want to create a timeline, so you start with who saw what first? What was the first call? Was it a passing motorist at, let’s say, 2 in the afternoon? Was it someone who called 911 from their cell phone and they were sitting at a restaurant eating lunch? You build this timeline, and then as you go along, then you’re starting to get input from the first responders, so the first fire crew on the scene, what did they see? Were they able to enter a building? This fire – again, you’re talking about on a Boardwalk area, so it’s exterior, but the fire actually came from inside out and actually from underneath. So it was – you want to – you want to zero in on who responded, exactly what they did, and you may have a crew of three or four people on fire apparatus, and you really should talk to each one of those people because each one of those people may have been doing a different thing at the time, so they may have different observations.
ROD AMMON: So I think one of the things that’s sort of – well, somewhat in our recent – somewhat recent in our history is the amount of media that’s out there, and when I’m talking about media, I’m talking about audio and video and pictures that must have existed with all these hundreds of people around. How did you –how did you use this to inform the investigation?
JESSICA GOTTHOLD: That’s an excellent question and absolutely true. We had video and photographs from the public that assisted us in creating this timeline. Anything that you do, whether it be a criminal investigation or a civil investigation, eventually may come to you or someone else sitting on the stand talking about it, so it’s very important to note where the media comes from, how legitimate it is, and that you have the original, not a copy of something that may have been altered.
ROD AMMON: So in this case, when there were images and videos and audio, whatever came into you, what did you learn during the case where you said, wow, that might help because it might change the place you’re digging? And I came imagine with thinking about Boardwalk and wood and sand and heat, all of that to go try to find origin, images might help during the fire. Can you talk about how the images that were brought to you helped you with the investigation specifically?
JESSICA GOTTHOLD: So what is helpful and what was helpful were – there were some early on photos that were taken also from news crews of the fire in progress, so those early photos are always – they’re key to then following up with interviews and first responders and saying hey, what did you see? Where were you? What were you doing? And then marry it up with the photo.
ROD AMMON: One of the most interesting things to me about this is what you started out talking about is the fact that this is wood, laying on sand that was obviously very hot, so I’m picturing this like almost glass surface, in some cases with wiring that goes out and might be exposed. Why don’t you tell us what that was like? And I think you had said Mike from ATF, who is an electrical engineer, was there. Tell us a little bit about that.
JESSICA GOTTHOLD: Well, piecing together the wiring and where – what wiring went to what, and it was really like an archeological dig. That’s what it was like. It was painstaking. It was time consuming. It was hot. It was frustrating because you’re hundreds of yards from the beach and the water, and it’s very beautiful, but you’re in this pit of decimated remains, and because of the sustained heat, there was tremendous devastation, and there were many times that you could not follow the wiring and trace it back to its origin. However, Mike Keller, our senior electrical engineer, was really the lead when it came to the physical investigation, the scene investigation, and trying to put all these puzzle pieces together, and it was quite tedious.
ROD AMMON: So during the day, I mean I can imagine that a lot of you are assisting Mike Keller in just trying to find what he was looking for. Was – were you dealing with arc mapping? Were you mapping places where there were breaks?
JESSICA GOTTHOLD: Yes.
ROD AMMON: Make a picture for me.
JESSICA GOTTHOLD: There was definitely saltwater intrusion, and especially – I mean Hurricane Sandy did a number on that area, so from – even from Sandy forward, you’re talking about damage to the entire Jersey Shore, and this area was greatly affected. So you’re talking about a lot of wave action and saltwater that’s going to be intruding on this – the area, the infrastructure under The Boardwalk and the buildings there that are built on top of it and—
ROD AMMON: So what did Mike report as the final—?
JESSICA GOTTHOLD: He reported that all of that, okay, that we found, that it would have definitely had the capability to cause damage to sheathing and insulation, on cables underneath The Boardwalk.
ROD AMMON: If you had to encapsulate this investigation, how did you rule out other potential ignition sources? How did you finally decide hey, this is what happened at this place?
JESSICA GOTTHOLD: So based on, again, witness statements, first responder reports, video, photographs, and the – what the scene was telling us, the physical scene, we were able to say that this fire occurred behind and underneath the Kohr’s ice cream store, broke out behind the store, and then took off and that there was no deliberately set fire, that this was an accidental fire that was probably going to happen sooner than later.
ROD AMMON: So how was it working with all the local folks?
JESSICA GOTTHOLD: I’ve always had a great experience with Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office and the surrounding towns and their arson task force, absolutely fabulous.
ROD AMMON: And I guess you worked with the county prosecutor’s office and the state fire marshal, fire department, anybody else?
JESSICA GOTTHOLD: Yes. I shouldn’t forget the state fire marshal’s office, of course, because they were there, too, and so it was an excellent working relationship federally, state, county, local. It couldn’t have worked out better.
ROD AMMON: So what are the recommendations you would have for other investigators who might be involved in a fire like this?
JESSICA GOTTHOLD: My advice for dealing with large-scale fire incidents of this magnitude is the ATF National Response Team concept, which really brings it all together, which is to have that two-part system that becomes one everyday. You have one side investigating the physical scene. You have another team doing interviews, background checks, following leads, and then once a day or twice a day, everyone gets together and shares information.
ROD AMMON: Well, I appreciate you sharing this story with us. It’s an interesting case, and I can tell that there was a lot going on. We’re grateful for your time, Jessica.
JESSICA GOTTHOLD: Thank you.
ROD AMMON: Well, it’s always good to learn from case studies. We appreciate your feedback, and we’ll try to do more case studies as we move ahead in the future. Now, let’s make a phone call, give the IAAI a ring, and learn, as we’ve talked about in this new format, from the folks who actually do the work at the IAAI office.
KATE: IAAI, Kate speaking.
ROD AMMON: Hi Kate, this is Rod Ammon from the IAAI CFITrainer.Net. I’m wondering if you could just connect me up to Chris Burt so that I could have a conversation with her about certification and designations.
KATE: All right, I’ll pass you through.
CHRIS BURT: IAAI, Chris speaking.
ROD AMMON: Good morning, Chris. I’m calling you about certifications and designations. How are things?
CHRIS BURT: Things are well.
ROD AMMON: So tell me a little bit about what’s new. I know a lot of the reason people are members of the international is that they get involved in a lot of different designations and certifications that the IAAI provides.
CHRIS BURT: Oh yes, and we can continue to receive a steady stream of applications for our credentials. Currently, we have over 2100 certified fire investigators, over 1600 fire investigation technicians, and over 70 certified instructors.
ROD AMMON: So from a perspective of CFIs, that just continues to grow. I remember when that was more like 900, and now it’s over 2,000, and sort of the interesting thing is – well, very interesting is the FIT Program, fire investigation technician, as you called it, has how many again?
CHRIS BURT: Over 1600.
ROD AMMON: That’s pretty good. How many years has that been going on? Because that’s a relatively new program, and it relates—
CHRIS BURT: It’s been seven years. It started in – back in October of 2009.
ROD AMMON: But it takes awhile for something like that to get going, and those people also need to take a lot of programs from CFITrainer as part of their prerequisites, right?
CHRIS BURT: They do.
ROD AMMON: What else do they have to do?
CHRIS BURT: They have to be able to document 18 months or more of general experience in the fire investigation-related industry and 44 hours – a minimum of 44 hours of fire investigation training.
ROD AMMON: Roughly how many do you think joined up and became FITs? And I know people have to renew.
CHRIS BURT: Right, and people have to renew. Solely this year, I want to take a guess, probably about 200.
ROD AMMON: Okay, that’s good. I mean it’s very interesting to watch the different designations and certifications move ahead. What other designations are available out there?
CHRIS BURT: Well, we’ve got the – we also have the evidence collection technician, and we have over 300 of those. In fact, over the next several months, we’re going to have four practical examinations for the evidence collection technician. We’ve got one in September in Illinois. In October, we have one in South Carolina and one out in Ohio, and in December, we’re going to have one in Texas.
ROD AMMON: Great, and so those people have to take some prerequisites on CFI Trainer, and what else do they have to do?
CHRIS BURT: Well, they have to be able to document that they have collected a certain amount of evidence on fire scenes and that they also have – I believe it’s 18 months or more of experience collecting solely evidence, but they do have quite a few CFITrainer modules that they have to take before they can even fill out their application.
ROD AMMON: So it’s both study and then it’s experience, and beyond that, they also need to go through – what are you calling it again when they do the hands on?
CHRIS BURT: It’s the practical examination.
ROD AMMON: Okay, thank you.
CHRIS BURT: So they have 10 different stations where they collect a particular type of evidence and demonstrate that they can do it correctly.
ROD AMMON: And part of the difficulty of that – I know what makes it hard for the IAAI and costly is the fact that you have to go around the country and set these up, and it sounds like you had four that are coming up soon.
CHRIS BURT: We’ve got four coming up.
ROD AMMON: Awesome. What other things, or do you want to dump me off and be glad I’m gone?
CHRIS BURT: Well, the newest thing, and we really haven’t brought it out yet, is our motor vehicle fire credential endorsement, and this is being made available to those who are involved with the investigation and documentation of motor vehicle fire events, and this an endorsement that they can attach to their existing certified fire investigator or their fire investigation technician credential.
ROD AMMON: Okay.
CHRIS BURT: And right now, I currently have 13 who have received the endorsement.
ROD AMMON: Wow, and you know, I know from our past work that there is a huge interest and need related to the fire investigation of vehicles, which when I first learned about it, it sort of surprised me.
CHRIS BURT: Yes, so the information is all on firearson.com under training and certifications for the motor vehicle fire credential endorsement, and there, they do have to take the Knowledge 1 Motor Vehicle Fire – go through that particular class, which is a self-paced study so they can read through the documentation and do their self-study, and when they have completed that, then they take the examination.
ROD AMMON: Okay.
CHRIS BURT: And they also have to take the Motor Vehicle Fire Module through CFITrainer.Net.
ROD AMMON: So there’s a lot of new things that are happening, and there’s continued growth in – as far as CFIs across the country, IAAI CFIs, and it sounds like you’ve got your hands full, so I appreciate your time.
CHRIS BURT: Well, you’re quite welcome. Thanks for calling, and I’m always available.
ROD AMMON: I think the people who call in know that, and they really appreciate the time. That was part of the reason that we had talked about getting you guys on the phone because you’re the ones who are in contact with the members on a regular basis, and I know they love the fact that they can actually call in the office and get answers from people who know what’s going on. You want to connect me over to Kathy?
CHRIS BURT: Sure.
KATHY ANDERSON: This is Kathy. How can I help you?
ROD AMMON: Hi Kathy. It’s Rod Ammon calling from IAAI’s CFITrainer.Net podcast, and we’re told that you’re the person to talk to – actually, I know that – about membership, so I wanted to hear a little bit update about what’s going on in membership with the IAAI.
KATHY ANDERSON: Most notably, we have hit the 9,000 member mark, and we think that’s pretty exciting because it tells us that more and more people are looking at IAAI as the premier association for the technical development and training of fire investigators. So we find that pretty exciting, coupled with the CFITrainer.Net platform, which we think is a big draw for many of the members that we’ve accumulated in the last few years, especially since I’ve been here. So it’s good to see membership grow the way it has.
ROD AMMON: Well, it’s nice to hear the things obviously that we relate to as far as CFI Trainer, but I’ve also got to tell you that from the perspective of someone who sees what’s going on in a lot of different associations and foundations, those are some pretty amazing statistics. When you think about it, while a lot of organizations and associations have been losing membership, the IAAI has been continuously growing membership. I remember not too long ago when those numbers were closer to 5,000, not 9,000. That’s good work. I think they’re joining because of you.
KATHY ANDERSON: Well, you know what? We try to stick to the old-fashioned notion that customer service and it is important. Unless we’re away from our desk or the phones are just tied up, we’re – you’re going to get a live person on the line, and they’re going to help you.
ROD AMMON: And it’s not just live people. It’s live people – I had said to Chris it’s people on the phone who actually know what’s going on, and I know that’s really appreciated. You guys put a lot of passion and care into your work.
KATHY ANDERSON: We do because it’s important to us to help them, so that’s where we get our drive from because they have the drive that they have, and it’s so appreciated.
ROD AMMON: Well, you do it well, and I appreciate your time on the phone. Next month, we’re going to be talking to a couple other folks around the office related to some things with training, and I know Deborah Keeler wanted to talk a little bit about some things that are going on in partnerships and some new things that are happening in ITC being planned for the 2017 ITC. Thanks a lot, Kath.
KATHY ANDERSON: All right, thank you.
ROD AMMON: You have a good day.
KATHY ANDERSON: Bye.
ROD AMMON: Bye.
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.
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