ROD AMMON: Welcome to this edition to the IAAI CFItrainer.Net podcast. The speed of technology innovation in every aspect of our lives continues to accelerate, and fire investigation is no exception. There are many new technology tools that have the potential to improve and augment fire investigations. In this podcast, we’ll take a look at some of these new technologies. We welcome Jason McPherson from MSD Engineering to the podcast to talk about some of these new technology tools. Thanks for being with us, Jason.
JASON MCPHERSON: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.
ROD AMMON: So give us a brief understanding of your background so people know the expertise that you bring to the podcast.
JASON MCPHERSON: I am a licensed professional electrical engineer currently in 17 states. I am also a licensed master electrician in the state of Minnesota, a certified fire and explosion investigator, and I’ve been involved in the field of engineering since 1997 and specifically forensic electrical investigations since 2006.
ROD AMMON: So that’s pretty thorough for our audience, excellent. Why don’t you give us first sort of a brief overview of the ways that technology has sort of intersected with what you’re doing in the practice of fire investigation?
JASON MCPHERSON: Well, I think technology helps us to be more efficient at what we do from receiving new assignments to performing our tasks in the field or in laboratory examinations to the backend work such as discovery, documentation review, codes and standards. Certain codes and standards can be accessed by mobile devices, and so the goal, for my goal using technology is to be more efficient, collect more data, be able to more efficiently interlay that data.
ROD AMMON: Okay, and in turn, I think ultimately just do a better job, huh?
JASON MCPHERSON: Yes.
ROD AMMON: So what are you seeing in terms of new technologies that are making big impacts on the practice of fire investigation?
JASON MCPHERSON: Something that I have been using for four years now are tablet devices. In my opinion, I think they help us as investigators. Namely, you have a lot more options than your standard paper notes. For instance, not only are you note-taking, but you can take photos with your tablet devices and annotate on your photos. You can use a tablet device to do your site CAD. There’s several different apps that I utilize that are everywhere from pretty basic to almost a computer CAD-like app with layers and dimensions and things like that. It just depends on what I need for that particular scene.
ROD AMMON: We hear all these promises of what these technologies offer, and I had a learning curve with tablet computers, and I know a lot of folks talk about the tablets. What was it like for you getting involved with a tablet computer and learning how to really make it part of the day?
JASON MCPHERSON: There was a learning curve, although I’ve been involved in technology my whole professional career. The thing that I had to do was make myself learn it. I specifically remember buying my first tablet and taking it to some fire scenes and some lab exams, using the tablet and thinking, oh, I’m just going to go back to paper notes because it’s the old standby. So the thing that I had to do was I honest to goodness sat and basically pretended I was at a fire scene and went through step by step and said, okay, what do I need to do? What apps would I need? Watching other people use tablets, seeing how they utilize them. Some of my best ideas I get are from watching other people.
ROD AMMON: I think any of us do.
JASON MCPHERSON: Right.
ROD AMMON: So I’m thinking about being out on the scene. I’m one of these guys who doesn’t have to get dirty when I’m doing my work, but going to a fire scene is a pretty rough environment. What did you do to deal with that transition to taking this nice shiny iPad or whatever tablet that you had and walking out there sometimes with gloves, sometimes in a dirty environment? What did you do to get used to that?
JASON MCPHERSON: Well, quite honestly, I bought a good case for it, and that’s it.
ROD AMMON: Okay.
JASON MCPHERSON: I’ve been - like I said, I’ve been using an iPad in a fire scene for right about four years, and I throw it. I beat it. I kick it. I drop it, and it just keeps on going, and I’ve had - honest to goodness, there was a point in time where I would clip it to my belt or to my hammer loop on my bibs, and it would knock into things and people would just look at me and say I can’t believe you do that, and I say well, I bought a nice case for it, and it’s a tool, not a toy. And so I have - honest to goodness, I think I have field-tested the durability of tablets, at least mine.
ROD AMMON: And you’re dealing with some pretty sensitive issues relating to electricity and different things tied to forensics, so detail is important with you. So your feedback I think is real important.
JASON MCPHERSON: Like I said, for instance, site CAD; one of the things that I like about it is I’m starting to see a lot of the fire investigators I work with utilize tablets, and so they’re getting some really good site CAD work done upfront before I even get brought into a loss, and then they’re able to share that with me, and then we’re able to work on it if there’s any modifications that need to be done. Also, I - the particular site CAD app that I use utilizes layers, so if I’m using my site CAD to draw a room and put in circuits and appliances and do arc mapping and whatnot, I put those on different layers. I turn layers on and turn them off depending on what level of detail I need. Another great advantage in my - with a tablet is if I get it dirty or if I’m in, say, a HAZMAT-type scene, asbestos scene, I can wash it off. I throw it in a bucket of water. I wash it off.
My notes go immediately from my tablet to my desktop back at my office as soon as I have an Internet connection. Sometimes I will - if I’m handed drawings of an appliance or a control system, I can scan those or import those into my notes and then I can draw a yellow line on those drawings. With the tablet, there are some co-standards or guides that you can purchase access to, so you have those onsite with you. And then the other thing that I really, really like is on the backend of our files, when we get documentation, whether it’s drawings of a building or discovery documentation, if I want to take those with me, I don’t have to take a file. I can load those on my iPad. I treat it as a digital file cabinet.
ROD AMMON: Beautiful. You mentioned Internet connectivity, and I was going to ask you about that. What percentage of the time that you’re at a fire scene, and you’re often I guess in the Midwest or you’re around the country, how is the Internet connectivity for you?
JASON MCPHERSON: Mine’s fantastic. In those instances where I’m out of connectivity, it doesn’t take long to get back in, and then I’m connected to the Internet. My note-taking app automatically knows to link to the Cloud and sends my file to my computer.
ROD AMMON: What are some of the drawbacks of using a tablet? And again, I know you’ve talked about taking the time to learn it, but have you had any issues where you felt like paper would have been better? I can’t see it, but I hear some of the folks that have been in the industry a long time say, hey, I’m happy.
JASON MCPHERSON: Drawbacks to a tablet, learning curve. Like I said, I have been in with technology. I used to design equipment, so I’ve always been involved in technology, and it’s just - in my opinion, is the learning curve. You have to sit down and put a lot of time into evaluating the different applications. There are instances where you’ll get an app, and you’ll think, wow, this thing does everything I want except, and so you have to learn with this app I can do all these things that I want except for this one thing and am I willing to live with that one drawback? For instance, the note-taking app I use, I love it except I can’t auto number pages. It drives me crazy. I mean, I love everything about it except I can’t auto - so now I’ve got to write out the page numbers on everything. It drives me nuts.
ROD AMMON: That’s the engineer in you coming out.
JASON MCPHERSON: Yeah, it’s like why can’t you just let me auto-number pages? So with a tablet and with the fact that it doesn’t replace a laptop and it does have limited functionality, every app will be great except for one or two things and can you work around it? But for the most part, like I said, I have - once I forced myself to learn to use a tablet on a fire scene a number of years ago, I’ve never looked back. And then with mine, I choose to use a larger tablet, and the drawback is, is it’s just - it’s big versus some of the smaller framed tablets that are out there.
ROD AMMON: Sure, but that’s important for you when you’re drawing or when you’re doing anything.
JASON MCPHERSON: Exactly. I choose to have a bigger work surface. Other people don’t.
ROD AMMON: All right, so tablets are in, and some of the things that we’ve heard in the past, which are battery life and Internet connectivity and getting dirty seem to have been dealt with by a better design and new technology, so what about laser measuring? This is something that I saw in the home improvement area a while ago, but some folks have mentioned it when it comes to investigation because when you’re going out there doing drawing or anything that you’re doing, you need to know the size of things. What are you using?
JASON MCPHERSON: Well, laser measuring devices range from the simple laser-measuring device that you can get at a hardware store to some very complex laser-measuring devices. For instance, you have a simple-basically a point-and-shoot device. You put it on your target. You get a button that tells you how far that target is away. There’s another range that does basically the same thing. However, it can link to certain apps and certain tablets and send that measurement to your app that you’re using to do your site CAD. So, for instance, if you’re diagramming a room, you put it on one wall. You shoot another. You hit a button. It sends that dimension to your site CAD, and the site CAD automatically will draw that wall.
ROD AMMON: And this is all using Bluetooth I’m guessing.
JASON MCPHERSON: Bluetooth. As far as I know, Bluetooth is the technology that they’re all using right now. One of my business partners, Matt Govin, uses a Bluetooth laser-measuring device, and he links it to his tablet, into his site CAD program.
ROD AMMON: Nice.
JASON MCPHERSON: And he really likes it. So we’ve been testing that technology out. One of our guys has been testing it out for some time now.
ROD AMMON: So we’ve talked a little bit about measuring devices, but you had mentioned things related to three dimension or 3D uses for measuring. Can you talk a little bit about that?
JASON MCPHERSON: Sure. There’s a number of companies, and they’ll bring a station in on a tripod, and they will put that device in several locations within a fire scene, and it will map out the fire scene. And then later, you can get a rendering of that fire scene that you can view on your computer versus having to draw that fire scene out. You will have that from several different angles, so you’ll be able to get measurements, distances from different points and things like that.
ROD AMMON: So in that case, it’s actually plotting the entire scene. It’s recreating the scene in a mathematical way so that once that’s imported back at a computer, it just recreates a three-dimensional drawing.
JASON MCPHERSON: Yes.
ROD AMMON: Okay. We talked a little bit about - well, a couple different things. Let’s touch briefly on the fact that - everybody I’ve spoken to mentions it at one time or another - drones. And there are some issues. Do you want to talk about that?
JASON MCPHERSON: Well, my understanding with the issues for drones is that there are certain regulations that the government has on using drones for commercial use, and then also certain carriers or clients may or may not want drones utilized in an investigation, so those are always thing that you would want to be cognizant of.
ROD AMMON: I mean, I’ve heard people love to get the idea of an overall aerial view of a scene, but again, I think we just need to note it and tell people that if you’re going to be using them, you’re going to need to get to know them, know how to control them, and know the laws in your area.
JASON MCPHERSON: Yes.
ROD AMMON: That’s cameras, and you were pretty pumped up about some of the cameras that you’ve seen or the things that you’ve been using.
JASON MCPHERSON: Yes. First off, one of the things that I really like to utilize are field microscopes, and when I say that, I’m talking about a small handheld microscope that I will utilize with my tablet device. I can take an image with that microscope. I can then send that to my tablet device, import it into my notes, and annotate on the photograph, but also I have a pretty capable device with a very good magnification that I can use to look at small details such as small art sites and things like that.
ROD AMMON: Okay, so the cameras you’re using now have better macro?
JASON MCPHERSON: As far as cameras are concerned, there’s a whole family of small pocket-sized cameras that have fantastic macro features that people use in lab exams and also for looking at small features on things that you have a hard time seeing with the naked eye where you need that zoom capability or that macro capability. And then also, cameras have the ability to Wi-Fi images, so the camera that I choose to use has the ability to create its own Wi-Fi network, which I can then link with my tablet and import photographs again into my tablet or into my notes for annotation purposes.
ROD AMMON: So you’re investigation really becomes integrated into that tablet.
JASON MCPHERSON: That is an excellent way to say that. I try to center a lot of things around the use of my tablet.
ROD AMMON: So that’s your digital case file moving on. So talk about - you’re a specialist or you have a lot of specialty in forensics, electricity. You’re coming in looking for some pretty fine detail. Can you talk a little bit about how you would use these new field microscopes? When was - talk about a recent usage of that and how it helped you out.
JASON MCPHERSON: Sure. One of the things that I do is arc mapping, and so there are times where an arc site is easily identifiable with the naked eye. There’s other times where that field microscope is very advantageous because you need that real-time data on the scene to make the determination whether you think that particular melt on a wire or couple of wires or whatnot is an arc site or if it’s just melting from some environmental cause, heat, chemical, etc. So I will utilize the field microscope to get a close-up view of that melt to make that determination because that can dictate the course of where my investigation may lead.
ROD AMMON: You talked a little bit about finding a blob of plastic, and there were some technologies that you might use to try to figure out what’s inside.
JASON MCPHERSON: ...we have a couple of - we have two portable x-ray units, and we, at times, will take those out into the field and take x-rays of masses of plastic or debris so that, again, we can get a real-time determination of what’s in that plastic or what’s in that debris versus waiting until we get to a lab exam to make that determination. The x-ray units we use are about the size of, say, a football, and we will utilize a digital plate, and we will set the subject on the digital plate. We will take an exposure with the x-ray unit, and then the particular digital plate that we use takes about, I’d say, a good 10 to 15 seconds to process the image and display it on our terminal.
ROD AMMON: It’s funny how you say a good 10 to 15 seconds, like that’s a long time.
JASON MCPHERSON: Hey, we’re an eBay society, buddy, point and click, right?
ROD AMMON: We used to - just to go get an x-ray at the dentist, it had to go into a bath and get developed in the next room while you were sitting there waiting, and now we’re worried about 10-15 seconds. So now that’s x-ray. You also mentioned CT.
JASON MCPHERSON: Oh yeah, computerized tomography is used similarly to x-ray, but instead of a 2D image, it creates a 3D, or generates a 3D images of an object with slices through the entire image. So not only are you looking at the exterior of an object, but you can actually use CT to get into the object and see what’s inside of it slice by slice.
ROD AMMON: If you could cry to one of the design engineers out there or to the industry, what do you think would be great?
JASON MCPHERSON: I think, quite honestly, and I can see this, there are tools for doing quite a lot in this field. It just depends on whether you know about them, have access to them, or are willing to find them. There’s a lot out there, but you just - you have to go find it.
ROD AMMON: I appreciate your time very much, Jason.
JASON MCPHERSON: Thank you for having me.
ROD AMMON: We’re very grateful. Now, for some news and information from around the IAAI. For those of you who don’t know, the 2015 international training conference is coming up May 17th through the 22nd. There’s some great things going on out in Chicago, and you still have time to sign up and get out there, www.iaaiitc.com. That’s www.iaaiitc.com with information about this year’s international training conference. You should know that some of the typical attendees include fire and arson investigators, fire personnel and leadership, insurance claim adjustors, SIU personnel, scientists, attorneys, engineers, and building, auto, and appliance manufacturers. So again, if you haven’t signed up to get out to the Chicago ITC, you can do so at iaaiitc.com or give the office a call.
As a leader in the fire investigation industry, staying in touch with the IAAI membership and others in the fire service is key to keeping and building relationships across the large audience that the IAAI serves. Following along with this commitment to be in touch, representatives of the IAAI will be on hand at booth 1472 at NFPA Conference and Expo June 22nd through the 25th in Chicago. We’re always eager to share information about CFItrainer.net, upcoming training events, our certifications and designations, and any other happenings relevant to you and the fire investigation industry. We’re especially proud to announce our new evidence collection app available or the iPad through iTunes. We hope you’ll stop by booth 1472, introduce yourself, and bring us up to date on what’s important to you and what you’d like to see happening with the IAAI.
The John Charles Wilson-Robert Doran Senior Scholarship is a program by which the IAAI Foundation and its benefactor partners provide financial assistance to select individuals to enhance their education in the fire explosion profession by helping them to attend the IAAI international training conference or other events. The IAAI Foundation may award up to five individual scholarships annually. Eligible applicants must be a current IAAI member to apply. Applicants must submit a completed application along with a short narrative on why they are making application for the scholarship program. Scholarship applications must be received by the IAAI Foundation by August 1st. Successful applicants will be notified by October 1st of that year for attendance at the following year’s ITC or IAAI training event. Please submit completed applications via email to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, go to www.firearson.com and look for the foundation information, or go to the new foundation website at iaaifoundation.org. That concludes this podcast. Stay safe. We’ll see you next time on CFItrainer.Net. For the IAAI and CFItrainer.Net, I’m Rod Ammon.