ROD AMMON: Welcome to this edition of the IAAI’s CFITrainer.Net podcast. As I’ve mentioned before, many of you have expressed that you like profiles and case studies in our polling. Today, we have a profile with an investigator that spotlights what it’s like to balance working in the public and the private sector at the same time, a challenge that I know is familiar to many of you. Jeff Spaulding is a deputy chief in the Middletown, Ohio Fire Department where he supervises the fire investigation task force. He is also a part-time fire investigator and training coordinator for Fire and Explosion Consultants, Incorporated. He’s also an instructor at a local technical school and community college. For several years, Chief Spaulding operated his own private sector fire investigation and emergency response training firm. Chief Spaulding is an IAAI CFI, hazardous materials technician, and an Ohio fire safety inspector. Chief Spaulding, you’re a busy guy. Welcome to the podcast.
JEFF SPAULDING: Yes, I’m actually fairly busy.
ROD AMMON: So tell us a little bit about Middletown. We have people who are interested on the podcast and some of the things that we’ve done in video on CFI Trainer where they’re saying we want to learn a little bit more about some other people out there that are doing our job. Tell us about Middletown and your job there.
JEFF SPAULDING: Well, the city of Middletown is a community in Southwest Ohio. It has approximately 50,000 residents within it, and we’re basically an urban center where we have a lot of mixed-use type properties. We have a large steel manufacturing facility so there’s a lot of support businesses to that and paper factories. Our demographics go from one extreme to the other, and we’re an older community in the Rust Belt. We’re starting to recover a little bit from the recession that just we all have gone through, but a unique place, and as far as type of department we are, we’re a career department that operates both fire and EMS services.
ROD AMMON: Okay, you have a dual role. You work as a public safety officer for your fire department and as an investigator on the private side, so tell us about that. You busy?
JEFF SPAULDING: On the fire department side and public side, I definitely stay busy. As my role as the deputy chief, I’m responsible for a 24-hour shift the – approximately 25, 26 firefighters, so obviously the day-to-day fire and emergency service operations are conducted. We’re responsible for those individuals, but I’m also responsible for a joint police and fire investigation task force, which, again, is comprised of both fire investigators on the fire department side as well as detectives who have gone through origin and cause training on the police department.
ROD AMMON: Okay, so as you’re working different cases, how do you manage the public and private sector sort of division? How do you avoid conflicts of interest?
JEFF SPAULDING: The biggest thing with the conflicts of interest is to make sure that obviously I don’t want to investigate any fires in the city of Middletown on the private side that I may have investigated or been involved with on the public side. Definitely if it’s an incendiary fire, I don’t touch those, but I’m fortunate that the majority of the fires that occur in the city, I have the ability – if for whatever reason, that client would want us to look at it, there’s other investigators in the private investigation company that are able to go and take care of those events. When we do have incidences where individuals with – or investigators with Fire and Explosion Consultants, which is our private company, are investigating, I mean we cooperate with each other just like I would with any other agency whether public or private. However, again, we keep our investigations themselves independent to just avoid any type of conflict that may arise from that.
ROD AMMON: So let’s get a little more specific about that. What are some of the things that investigators have to be aware of if you are working both the public and private side?
JEFF SPAULDING: You know, as a public investigator, obviously the big concerns would be as a representative of, just say for general terms, the state or the government, we have to keep in consideration those aspects such as fourth and fifth amendment rights that are extended to those individuals. We obviously don’t want to do an investigation and compromise our ability to continue it by not either having consent or a search warrant to return to the scene or to continue the investigation, as well as we don’t want to put ourselves in a position where somebody’s right to remain silent is compromised. On the private side, obviously we’re – we have the ability to kind of work through those because of the policy of the contract that the individual signed, so we – we’re in a position where we’re able to interview those individuals without having to worry about it being a fifth amendment right, and we can investigate those fire scenes. But then we also lose some of the tools such as the ability to do criminal background searches as well as our ability to potentially identify additional witnesses sometimes just because we don’t have those local resources that the public side may have.
ROD AMMON: Have you ever had a situation where you sort of had to stand aside from one side or the other?
JEFF SPAULDING: In what respect?
ROD AMMON: Well, I mean you were working on a case, let’s say, in a public way, got called in on the private side or the other way around, and I don’t know, there was a potential for you to compromise the investigation in either way.
JEFF SPAULDING: I can’t think of anything directly. Again, the closest that I would say I’d probably come with that is being aware of the fire before obviously being contacted. An example would be if a local agency wished to utilize our canine. They contact me so that I can triage the event and determine do we send our canine out immediately or can it wait, and then being contacted a day or two later by, let’s say, an insurance carrier that wants me to come in and investigate the fire. In those instances, obviously, I would have to evaluate and make sure I’m not doing anything that would be considered I’m working for one side or the other and create that conflict.
ROD AMMON: Right. All right, I’m just asking questions because I’m thinking for the investigators who haven’t done it I just thought there might be some things that we could identify for them to be aware of. A lot of the folks that I talk to the public side have these thoughts of being on the private side in their future.
JEFF SPAULDING: You know, as far as that transition from public to private investigator, I was very fortunate that when I got into the private side back in the early 2000s, that exfoliation wasn’t as common as it was now, and the way that we process and document scenes aren’t to the extent that it was now, but I did know, and I’ve learned as it’s gone on, that it’s – it can be challenging for that public investigator to transition into the private side because now they have to be aware of all these things that I’ve had the opportunity to learn over the years such as do I hold the scene or do I process it? Do I have a chance for subrogation? How do I identify any other potential parties? How do I identify if there’s a recall or that this device may be under a potential recall? What are the statutes of repose for the jurisdiction of the state that I’m operating in and conducting this investigation?
There’s a lot of legal nuances that, as a public investigator, we typically don’t have to be as concerned with just because of the fact that our role generally is to determine the origin and then determine the cause. If the cause is what we consider accidental, we typically, on the public side, we don’t go very much further than that, and if it’s a criminal event, obviously we take it a lot harder, but that’s really the big transition is that learning curve of identifying all those different aspects from a civil perspective and then being able to apply that and keep it in your mind as you’re going through it and you’re working different fires.
ROD AMMON: So just like any other job or like being a good investigator, you’re paying attention to the details, being consistent, following the scientific method, and seems to work out.
JEFF SPAULDING: Yeah, I mean – when we talk about investigating a fire, there are the two docs that we use: 921 and 1033. They apply to everybody. I was at a seminar once which was basically filled with a bunch of attorneys, and I was presenting and that was a question posed. Does 1033 apply to the public investigator? And at that point, it was almost like a wow moment. I’m like, well, yes it does, but I understood what she was getting at, that as a public investigator, we still have to do everything as though we were a private – processing a fire scene and determining origin and identifying cause and developing a hypothesis do not make a difference whether you’re a public or private investigator. I know when I’m working on the public side I process the fire scene exactly as I would as a private investigator. The only thing I may not do is recover evidence of an accidental fire because I don’t have a vested interest in it at that point. However, I will process and I will identify all the potential ignition sources, documenting those items whether it is photography, sketches, getting witness statements, all the same information I do on the private side to support my conclusions when developing an opinion on the public side.
ROD AMMON: So have you had situations where you responded to a fire for a public safety call out, and then you were assigned to that fire to investigate for a private entity?
JEFF SPAULDING: In those instances, I would decline to take the fire. I would suggest another investigator within FEC or another company.
ROD AMMON: Okay, that was a lot easier answer than I thought there would be. So how do you find yourself in the – I’m sorry. Go ahead.
JEFF SPAULDING: No, I was just going to say you just – you want to avoid those conflicts, and that’s happened to me several times where I either was the incident commander or I was the investigator or I may have just gone to assist another investigator. When I get that phone call, I’m very upfront with them and I say look, I’ve already been there. I don’t – it would be a conflict if I was involved, and then again make a referral to another investigator that is in our company or another company itself.
ROD AMMON: Okay, I know it may sound like common sense, but I think sometimes some of the common sense things are good to discuss.
JEFF SPAULDING: Oh absolutely.
ROD AMMON: So what are you thinking about being in this dual role? I mean how do you feel about the transition over to the private sector at the same time you’re in the public department? I mean how’s that working for you?
JEFF SPAULDING: It’s – I mean I’m able to separate the two. Really the biggest challenge is just the number of – or the volume of losses because, again, there’s – on the public side if it’s a criminal event, which unfortunately we’ve been inundated with, it takes a lot of time and energy to conduct the follow ups. The scene is just the beginning of that investigation, so it makes it challenging to schedule fire investigations on the private side, knowing that I’ve got these tasks sitting in front of me on the public side. But as far as to say that a transition issue, it’s not a – it’s nothing that has really concerned me or that I think would concern most, other than just making sure that you know what the boundaries are between both the public – when you’re operating in a public role versus when you’re operating in a private role.
For example, it’s probably not the best thing in the world on the private side to essentially interrogate somebody that has no obligation to cooperate with you. And I’ve heard that at times where I’ve heard somebody say, well, you know, I basic – you know, essentially provide a threat of some type of monetary action to try to coerce that individual into talking, and again, on the private side, we want to be careful. Obviously on the public side, coercion can hurt you as well, but you have – again, you have to be real careful because the last thing you want to do, let’s say, as a private investigator is, two years down the road, have an attorney sit there and say, did you talk to my client and say these things to them and have to answer to that, especially if you give a recorded statement and it’s all clearly documented.
ROD AMMON: Understood.
JEFF SPAULDING: I had recently an experience where an investigator had contacted me and said, you know I basically – I did a recorded statement with this individual who was not my insured and essentially used some type of threat of monetary punishment, i.e. you would have to pay us all back if you don’t tell me the truth. And as I’m listening to it, my jaw is dropping because I’m – first of all, you’re going to do – you’re going to basically try to coerce a statement out of a private – out of an individual you don’t represent and it’s recorded. You have to be – those are things that, again, should be part of your investigations file, and if you’re providing it to your carrier, if that action would go to court or to some type of legal action later on, I mean it could put you in a spot where I think another attorney, especially if you weren’t prepared for it, should put you very – make you very uncomfortable.
It could potentially compromise the investigation, and if they tell you something that’s contradicted by your physical scene examination or the evidence you develop, then you indicate that in your opinion when you’re developing your report or if you’re presenting at a trial or deposition or whatever it may be. On the public side, obviously there are interview techniques and tactics and the interviews transition into interrogations, but there is a process, i.e. Mirandizing an individual, that allows you to do certain things, again, as long as you’re not making any promises of, we’ll say, leniency to the individual to cooperate and talk to you.
ROD AMMON: Understood.
JEFF SPAULDING: So you have to – again, it’s – fire investigation whether it’s the scene work or it’s the interviews or whatever, again, there’s a process and there’s legal considerations in every aspect you do.
ROD AMMON: When we were talking before, you mentioned briefly so it might be a little redundant, but you mentioned briefly that you guys are busy out there, and it sounded to me like you had a lot of public sector cases going on. Do you want to talk a little bit about that in your area?
JEFF SPAULDING: Sure, I mean we’re not a large department by any means, but based off of the size of our community and the type of activity we have, we definitely have been extremely busy during the past year. We reorganized our fire investigation unit, created this task force with police and fire personnel within the last, we’ll say year and a half, and in that time, obviously we identified a larger number of fires that were incendiary, and going beyond that, have been able to actually identify suspects and make arrests and take things all the way through to trial. Again, it’s – for whatever reason, it’s just been very busy.
ROD AMMON: I’ll tell you, I never hear a bad story come out of people saying that they took the time to get organized and put together a task force. It always seems like people go, you know, it was really good to have the resources around to develop a team because I think a lot of the investigators – well, I know it; you do too – are out there alone.
JEFF SPAULDING: Right. You know, the nice thing about a task force, especially when you’re using police and fire personnel, is that you’re able to take those strengths from both organizations. The fire investigators, who typically are firefighters, they know when they’re looking at those fire damage patterns, they can basically cognitively reconstruct how the fire was developing in that area at the time, and they’re able to translate that when they’re processing the scene. The police officers or detectives that are involved in this task force, they have the interviewing skills. They have the criminal investigative skills, and they’re able to draw from the information that’s provided from the scene examination to identifying witnesses and suspects and getting those individuals into an interview room and potentially getting some type of confession from them.
ROD AMMON: You had a case recently that I was told about. It involved a pacemaker.
JEFF SPAULDING: Yes. On September 19th, we – the Middletown Division of Fire was dispatched to a residence on the report of a structure fire, and during the initial fire suppression activities, it was identified that – the potential that the fire may be incendiary essentially because of it looked like there was areas on fire on the structure that shouldn’t be because they weren’t connected to the main fire at the time.
ROD AMMON: Okay.
JEFF SPAULDING: And we obviously initiated our task force. We conducted an extensive investigation of this fire scene itself, and for approximately three weeks after that scene examination, Detective John Rawlins of the Middletown Police Department and I conducted a follow-up investigation, as we had suspected, based off of the scene examination and the initial information that was provided us by the property owner that his – basically his statement wasn’t consistent with anything we saw.
ROD AMMON: Okay.
JEFF SPAULDING: And during a brainstorming session, for lack of a better term, Detective Rawlins suggested, well, what about the pacemaker? What will it tell us? Because we all know that electronic devices can store a lot information, a lot of different things depending on what the purpose of it is, whether it’s a cell phone or a digital camera or a computer itself, and we had done all those activities.
ROD AMMON: But this was a pacemaker that was on the homeowner, correct?
JEFF SPAULDING: Yeah, it’s an internally implanted pacemaker, and basically that device – it assists with making sure that the electrical system of the heart continues to operate the way it’s supposed to as far as producing a heartbeat or a heart contraction as it’s needed. The device also records when the intrinsic, the rate of the heart goes up or goes below certain levels and such.
ROD AMMON: Okay.
JEFF SPAULDING: So we discussed it, and I kind of explained what I knew what a pacemaker may or may not have as far as information wise, and so we discussed the concept with the cardiologist, and the cardiologist believed that there would be some data, but he wasn’t 100% sure that it would be useful to us.
ROD AMMON: So how did you go about collecting the data?
JEFF SPAULDING: Well, after a discussion, we believed that – after finding out that basically it’s a very – it’s a noninvasive process where essentially a technician for the manufacturer of that pacemaker would be able to use a device that gets somewhere in the area where it is, and they don’t even have to touch the patient with them, but they can download that information, and they can use it for historical analysis. We went ahead and wrote a search warrant because we believed it was nothing more invasive than saying you’re going to get a DNA sample or case fingerprints from an individual or a hair sample, whatever it may be. In fact, it was even less than that because we physically didn’t have to touch the person. So we wrote the search warrant. We picked up the individual that it was for, and met with a technician at a local hospital. The technician needed about 15 seconds to download the data, and it was done. We no longer – we were – we had obtained the information we needed and no longer needed the individual that we were getting the info from, but the data was extremely informative, more than we had imagined. Unfortunately, because it is still an active case, I can’t go into too much more about that.
ROD AMMON: Okay.
JEFF SPAULDING: But again, it was an informative tool to the point where after that case, within a couple weeks, we actually had two homicides in November with one of those being a homicide with a subsequent fire to try to conceal and destroy evidence. Both those individuals had pacemakers, and using information we had learned on a previous case, we wrote search warrants to get information from those pacemakers and were able to establish an approximate time of when the device indicates that the person was no longer alive.
ROD AMMON: Wow.
JEFF SPAULDING: So that information, especially on the fire case, because we knew that the victim, at that point, based off of cell phone records and some information we were slowly getting, that the victim was killed several hours before the fire actually occurred. Basically the individuals left and came back to try to conceal the evidence, so that data was all confirming to that. The same thing with the murder the day before where the individual was killed. His pacemaker data corroborated with the shots fired call within that area, and several witnesses stating that they had heard noises at that residence, so we were able to – we were able to use that data to corroborate other information we may already have.
ROD AMMON: Wow, pretty interesting, and I guess even more interesting to me is that you’ve had three cases in recent months where there’s been data collected from a pacemaker, and I know there’s a lot of other devices that are going into people, so I guess it’s something all of us need to be aware of no matter what side you are of the law.
JEFF SPAULDING: Well, and you know there’s been a lot of discussion about that particular case, and the discussion centers around fourth, fifth, and sixth amendment rights, whether it’s self-incrimination or the right to search and seize that data and such. So there’s some individuals that the premise of their blog post or their story is I shouldn’t have to choose between my pacemaker or my medical device and my privacy. The long and the short is the government or a fire agency or a law enforcement agency is not going to come and try to download your information unless you’re committing a crime and they have probable cause and they have a judge who reads the affidavit and agrees and signs the warrant.
ROD AMMON: Right. Well, I mean hey, look at phone records. Look at GPS. There’s all – there’s so many places where this is happening.
JEFF SPAULDING: Some of the stuff that people have brought up are like Fitbits. I mean there is – people have – in some of these posts have brought up things honestly I never even thought about that. What about a Fitbit? What about an Apple Watch or some part of – some type of cardio monitor that you may be wearing or a pedometer that’s monitoring your steps? I mean it’s all – it’s little bits of the – and pieces of the puzzle.
ROD AMMON: Okay, so Jeff, thanks for wrapping up and especially wrapping up some real interesting information about electronic devices and what kind of information they might glean for investigators. Thanks for sharing your perspective and a little bit about Middletown and joining us.
JEFF SPAULDING: Thank you very much. Like I said, I enjoyed the podcasts that you guys produced in the past. Hopefully this will be useful for others.
ROD AMMON: Thank you very much for your time. Have a good night.
JEFF SPAULDING: Thanks. You too, sir, bye-bye.
ROD AMMON: That concludes this podcast. Stay safe. We’ll see you next time on CFITrainer.Net, and that might be sooner than you’re used to. In other words, probably next week we’re going to have a short podcast in the next week or so about the international training conference for the International Association of Arson Investigators. We’re going to talk to some folks about what’s coming up this April in Las Vegas. For the International Association of Arson Investigators and CFITrainer.Net, I’m Rod Ammon. Be well.