ROD AMMON: Welcome to this edition of the International Association of Arson Investigators CFITrainer.net podcast. As I’ve discussed in the past months, we’re changing things a bit here at the podcast based on your feedback, so let’s get right into today’s discussion with Dan Hebert. He’s an IAAI CFI with a long list of credentials in fire investigation. We reached out to Dan because our chairman of the CFITrainer.net steering committee, Kirk Hankins, thought we should share information about how flooding affects investigators, and there have been many recent flooding events in our country, both salt and freshwater. There are some parallels to the Seaside Heights case study podcast that you can listen to on a link from this same page. So, Dan Hebert, welcome to the podcast.
DAN HEBERT: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.
ROD AMMON: Well, we’re glad you are. So what are you up to these days?
DAN HEBERT: Well, as you know, I retired from ATF at the end of 2012, so I am currently working in the private industry for a forensic investigations group here in the New Orleans area and around the south.
ROD AMMON: Good. Well, that will help us with what we’re looking for because I wanted to find out a little bit from you about some of your experience related to flooding, and we appreciate you taking the time. Bobby Schaal, who vets experts for CFITrainer.net, recommended you because of your extensive work following Hurricane Katrina, so I’m wondering what did you learn from Katrina? How did it affect your investigations there?
DAN HEBERT: Well, when you’re talking about an event like Katrina or the recent flooding in Baton Rouge, they both have similarities and some distinct differences. I’d say that in Katrina, of course, your job description can sort of change as far as working with someone like ATF where the fire investigation takes a back burner for a while for rescues and clearing out hospitals, trying to get people to safety, and moving people out of town and getting supplies to people, and it’s not just ATF. Of course, the Fire Marshal’s Office and everyone was kind of responsible for doing that as well. So there’s a – you take on more responsibilities, not just fire investigation at that point.
ROD AMMON: And I bet a lot of people really appreciated that extra care. So once you got to the stage where you working on investigations, my understanding is there were fires in that area that you had to go in and work.
DAN HEBERT: Absolutely. As far as Katrina and Rita, it’s a bit unique from regular flooding because it was several months in some cases before the levies were rebuilt and the water went down. You had a lot of situations where you were called to go investigate this fire, and of course, when you were finally able to get there, you had a structure that, from six feet down, is standing that was protected by flood waters, but from six feet up, there is absolutely nothing left, no roof, no anything because it burned up, and of course, the fire stopped at the waterline, which begs the question at that point, how does a house that’s flooded catch fire? That’s always an interesting thing to try to figure out.
ROD AMMON: That sounds pretty bizarre. What other things do you see after a flood that are unique?
DAN HEBERT: Well, one of things that’s unique about it is there are – the patterns don’t always represent what you expect on a regular fire scene. For instance, a lot of the patterns – I remember going into one house where the bottom of – it had been flooded, and the bottom of the couch was burnt. Now, of course, everything was askew and kind of spread out everywhere, so here you are trying to figure out how the bottom of a couch is burned when the top of the couch is not burned, nor is anything around it burned, and then you realize after talking to the owners that a lot of their things had been put – elevated, like couches and things like that had been put on countertops or on tables, expecting that if there is a possibility of getting a few inches of water, they wouldn’t things as the couch.
So you had a fire that burned down because the couch was upside down on the kitchen counter, so you had burning to the bottom of the couch, but when the floodwaters lifted it and put out the fire, eventually, when the investigation came, you found a couch with the bottom burned and the top wasn’t burned, but no more burning anywhere at lower levels because it was protected by floodwater. So it’s a greater part of the puzzle that, as fire investigators, we have to put together.
ROD AMMON: It’s interesting. When I – when you first started talking about that, I thought, well, maybe the fire happened before the flood.
DAN HEBERT: Exactly, and that is a possibility, but that’s one of the things you have to figure out because there are – there’s human nature out there. There are people that do bad things for self-preservation. You have a lot of people that are in flood zones that don’t require flood insurance, but if they have wind damage or fire damage, it’s covered, and here they are looking at five feet of water in their house that isn’t going to be covered at all by insurance. Next thing you know, the house is on fire, so as an investigator, that’s one of the things you have to figure out. Is this something natural that happened or is someone trying to make sure that they get insurance money out of their insurance company.
ROD AMMON: And I’m also wondering about after a flood, other types of ignition sources.
DAN HEBERT: Well, that’s interesting. In both, after Katrina and the recent flooding in the Baton Rouge area, and I’ve talked to people that experienced the same thing in the recent flooding in Texas and Arkansas, Florida, there’s tons of debris that has to be ripped out. I know myself I helped friends, cutting out drywall. You have to throw everything out once it floods from the water – above the waterline down. Everything has to go because even if you think you can reuse it, you’ve got – you can never clean it good enough because you’re always going to have these mold issues, which is also a safety issues for fire investigators that come in when you see mold climbing up the wall, and you’re out there having to investigate and spending hours and hours in there.
But the point is you have all this and all this debris, and there’s something happens in the mentality of people when they get sick and tired of looking at debris. You start getting all these little nuisance fires of the debris piles itself, which is usually not that big a deal, but I worked one recently where they had a debris pile spread and it eventually got under a covered parking area near the apartment complex. It banked into the covered parking, caused the fire to bank into the house, and catch the house on fire, so these debris piles can be very dangerous, and sometimes they sit there for months.
ROD AMMON: I had never thought about that. Here I was thinking about electrical.
DAN HEBERT: Well, that – electrical is one of the bigger problems, but again, these little fires and these debris piles people drive by every day, and I’ve experienced both where it’s just someone has matches and figures, ah, let me just light this on fire because they’re doing something wrong, and others, it just becomes a mental thing for them. They just start burning debris piles to get rid of them, but you never know where that will lead.
ROD AMMON: I can understand that. That’s the way I feel about my backyard often. So I’m wondering about the electrical. You come in. Let’s say the water is subsided, and you’re an investigator. What’s the normal condition of the house, and what are you looking at?
DAN HEBERT: Well, you’re looking at complete destruction. A lot of times, as far as things like Katrina, one of the issues – and I’ll get to the electrical, but just to kind of give you how bad it can actually be, you can’t fight a fire without water, and it pretty much wiped out the whole infrastructure of New Orleans, so even on a minor fire, you would get there, and everything would be collapsed because the only way to fight the fire would be those helicopters that would use those giant bags used for firefighting or wildland fires. That’s how we were putting out fires in New Orleans. They would actually drop them on the building. You got tons of water dropping on the roof of a building, so you’d get there, and you pretty much had nothing to look at, but one of the things with – especially if it’s hurricane related, there’s also damage – always damage and flooding to the electrical system because it gets soaked in water, and when the water subsides, you’ve still got the electrical issues, but in – especially in hurricanes, the thing is, right before the hurricane makes impact, the electrical companies intentionally shut the electricity down. Usually people think oh, the electricity is out because the storm is hitting. No, they turn it off to protect the system.
The problem is a lot of people evacuate and leave their power on, which is a bad idea because your power is going to get turned off simply to protect the power grid. So while they’re gone, you have a hurricane coming through. It can knock down trees. It could damage your property, and you’re not even at home, and then when the storm is through, you’ve got the power company that starts to get things back up and running, and they’re turning on the grid square by square, and next thing you know, there’s house fires and business fires all over the place, because they’re energizing lines that are now damaged, and sometimes transformers are damaged from trees falling or whatever and causes power surges, so even if your power is not damaged, you can have a fire just from a power surge from the electric company just by turning the system back on. So we get a lot of – we see a lot of that just from people leaving their system on when they evacuate.
ROD AMMON: So Dan, what have you seen or what do you know about the effects of water on electrical systems inside of a house, whether it’s freshwater or saltwater?
DAN HEBERT: Well, as far as the electrical system goes, it’s not a good thing when your house gets flooded whether it’s fresh or salt. Some of the things are similar, but some of the things are completely different. For instance, if water floods a house and it’s freshwater, when that house – even once the water drains out, some of the wiring actually has paper insulation that can hold water, and if your house was left on and the power comes back on and reenergizes, you can have arcing due to the moisture in the wiring itself. And that doesn’t matter whether it’s freshwater or saltwater, but one of the issues for those on the coasts, particularly hurricanes, that gets – they get storm surge that gets really high and attacks the electrical system. Well, that’s saltwater, and that, even after it drains out and you remove the drywall and you’re looking at the electrical system, it looks fine, but there’s saltwater in that system, and if you put that drywall back up over time, corrosion will take place, and that’s a tremendous fire hazard as the guys out there know.
So as an investigator, if you know you’re in an area or a flood zone where it’s flooded previously and you had a fire, you want to ask the homeowner or whoever is responsible, say, did this house flood? If so, how much water did it get? Was it four feet? Well, if your outlets are at 16 inches, you might want to find out was all the wiring taken out above the flood line and changed, or did a professional come in and make sure everything was okay? If not, that would be something you can look at as a possible cause of your fire.
ROD AMMON: I know from some of the folks that I know who have properties out near the coast, they have to go in and check their electrical systems just because of the humidity and the sea air and how it affects their electrical inside their homes.
DAN HEBERT: That’s actually true. Just high humidity can do the same thing just because the salt in the air, so that’s something else to think about.
ROD AMMON: All right, you mentioned something else when we had spoken before about gas.
DAN HEBERT: Well, one of the things that we’ve seen happening, and I don’t know the exact cause because I’m not going to sit here and tell you I’m an expert on gas flow, but one of the things we do see, you get a lot of gas fires and explosions, and it has to do with something that the flood waters get up above the gas lines or the gas meters causing over-pressure. And the system is designed to release gas if the pressure gets too heavy. Of course, now you’re – when it starts to release this gas, you’re introducing water into the gas system, and that causes more over-pressure, and the next thing you know, you’ve got gas filling up a building, and a lot of bad things can happen when that happens. So if you have a gas system and you have a flooding, that’s something else you need to be concerned and cognizant of when you’re doing the investigation.
ROD AMMON: Some of these fires that happen maybe years after, do you always know that a house has been affected by a flood when you come in to do an investigation?
DAN HEBERT: Well, you usually can tell because, as a general rule, the drywall, when you see the damaged walls and things like that, the drywall has been replaced four feet down, there’s a good chance that it was a house by Katrina because that’s the size of a drywall sheet – or flooding because the easy thing is just to cut it four feet all around the house so that you don’t have to cut the drywall, so yes, you can see it, new insulation, different types of insulation, things like that, but in truth, years later, there’s nothing from the flooding that should – or at least I haven’t experienced it yet – that a fire years later has anything to do with an earlier fire.
ROD AMMON: Got it. So a big part of the reason for doing this podcast about flooding was it seems like we’re getting flooding in places that we didn’t used to, so we wanted to raise some awareness to the folks who are maybe for the first time getting hammered in North Carolina or South Carolina or many of the rivers. I know up in Vermont back when one of the storms hit, places where they just weren’t used to it, do you have any thoughts for fire investigators in those areas, maybe special tools that they should think about or tactics that they should use when they’re investigating after a flood?
DAN HEBERT: Well, I know a lot of people really don’t like wearing the respirators when on a fire scene. Of course, we know about all the health issues that can come with the carcinogens we breathe in every day. Well, when you go into a flooded property, there are mold spores and some really nasty things that are in every one of these houses that could do some really bad things to your lungs and to your health. So it’s very important when you work these floods, don’t forget to wear your respirator. You have to wear it because you may be sorry in the long run. There is some really bad cancers and different things that can come from breathing this stuff in. That’s why it’s so important to the homeowners to get rid of everything that touched floodwaters.
ROD AMMON: Makes a lot of sense. I know there’s a lot of emphasis on that in the safety training that we get involved in and the cancer awareness. I’m wondering, do you have anything you want to share?
DAN HEBERT: You had mentioned Bobby Schaal earlier. As our time as fire investigators with ATF, I know that at one point, you’re talking about other jobs or other responsibilities as described. It’s kind of funny. Now it’s funny. It wasn’t funny then, but we were evacuating Tulane Medical Center or at least the helicopters were, and here’s these two fire investigators that get approached by the MedEvac helicopters that said that some of the helicopters are reporting getting shot at, so next thing you know, we’re evacuating the Tulane Medical Center sitting door gunner on an ambulance on an air flight. So other duties as described I think is the way they called it, so you never know what’s going to happen when you’re out there and things go crazy.
ROD AMMON: And once again, I’m sure everybody that was down there really appreciates the help that you guys provided. I appreciate your time, Dan. I hope to see you at ITC in Vegas, and I know a lot of folks are grateful for the work that you and the IAAI Foundation do.
DAN HEBERT: Well, thank you very much, and I certainly plan to be there.
ROD AMMON: We’ll see you then. Thanks again, Dan.
DAN HEBERT: All right, thank you.
ROD AMMON: Now, let’s talk to Trace Lawless. He’s with the T&E committee, or Training and Education, for the International Association of Arson Investigators. Trace, how are you?
TRACE LAWLESS: I’m fine today, Rod. Yourself?
ROD AMMON: I’m doing all right. Hey, you know, we’ve got to start talking about ITC for this spring and the year after that in 2000 – what, it’s 18. So what’s up for ITC 2017?
TRACE LAWLESS: ITC Las Vegas, April 9th through April 14th. We’re well underway with that curriculum and getting the presenters set. We’re real excited about it. We’re going to kick off that program next year after the opening ceremonies with a presentation from retired ATF agent Mike Vergon, CFI. He’s got a convicted arsonist he’s bringing to speak live to the attendees. He was convicted of arson and insurance fraud for over 70 fires over several years, and Mike Vergon was able to get him to come down and give us the facts of how he did it, how he was able to work the systems from the insurance fraud side, and a personal contact on how he intentionally set these fires to defraud the insurance companies. Along with that, we’re really excited about the offering of the insurance track at this year’s ITC. We’re going to be doing that in cooperation with the International – or excuse me – the Insurance Committee for Arson Control, and that will be 16 hours of insurance offerings directly related to fire investigation, explosion investigations, and so that will be a track. We’ve had it in the past, and we’re going to kick it back into its efforts this year and offer that for the insurance-related side of the business also.
ROD AMMON: Awesome. I know a lot of people that are involved in insurance have always been or continue to be involved with the IAAI. Anything else that you wanted to tell me about? I’m going to make a phone call after this to check in with what happened over the past month with Kate Reed, but I’m thinking you might have other things you want to chat about or—
TRACE LAWLESS: What I’d recommend to everybody, as you mentioned before, Rod, is firearson.com. We have all the listings of all the offerings. If you’re interested in having an offering at your location, please give Kate Reed or myself a call or an email. I’d be more than happy to talk with you and see what we can work out. Remember we’re here for the membership, and without the membership, we don’t exist.
ROD AMMON: I appreciate your time, Trace. Again, that’s Trace Lawless. He’s the chairman of the Training and Education Committee for the International Association of Arson Investigators. Thanks for your time, Trace.
TRACE LAWLESS: Thank you, Rod.
ROD AMMON: All right, you be well.
KATE REED: Hello.
ROD AMMON: Kate Reed, Rod Ammon calling from CFI Trainer. How are you?
KATE REED: I’m doing well, sir. And yourself?
ROD AMMON: I’m doing well. I just got off the phone with Trace Lawless, and we were talking about things involved in training and education, and we were sort of looking forward. I thought I’d give you an opportunity to talk about what happened recently.
KATE REED: I was down at the Complex Fire Investigation for the Insurance Industry that we put on with ATF at their facility and theater at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, and the weather was beautiful. We had a great crowd attending. We had 42 attendees. We had three gentlemen from Brazil, and we had a gentleman from South Africa, who took quite a long time getting there, and he loved the class, so we had a great diversity of people at the class, and of course, we had all of those great, wonderful instructors. We had 12 different instructors from the ATF and IAAI, and it went beautifully.
ROD AMMON: So tell me again. How many people?
KATE REED: 42.
ROD AMMON: Isn’t that sort of a big class?
KATE REED: Yes, that is. It’s a third more than what we had last year.
ROD AMMON: That’s good news, shows interest.
KATE REED: Yes, lots of interest and we had a great mix of male and female, insurance industry, public and, as I said, these three gentlemen from Brazil are engineers, and they got a lot out of it. I’ve been receiving emails from people saying how wonderful it was, and they really appreciate getting the information about it to attend it.
ROD AMMON: Well, I am very grateful for your report on going down there. I do have to remind people or tell people that you did get three flat tires on three individual rental cars.
KATE REED: Yes.
ROD AMMON: I thought that was pretty amazing, but maybe you’ve got to stay away from construction sites. So when are you going on the road again?
KATE REED: Myself, I am not going on the road any time soon, but we are currently still running classes all the time, putting them together in different locations. In fact, we’ve got an expert witness coming here to Crofton at the headquarters in December, and then with the new year, Pennsylvania is strong with a 40-hour class, an electrical aspect class, and a forensic photography class all in the first three months of the year.
ROD AMMON: Awesome, so I’m going to just tell people get over to www.firearson.com, and click on the training button if you want to find out, and there’s a training calendar that has a list of those events, correct?
KATE REED: Absolutely.
ROD AMMON: Thanks for your time, Kate.
KATE REED: All right, darlin’.
ROD AMMON: And that about wraps it up for our podcast this month. I appreciate all of you that check in with us on a regular basis, and I hope you tell some of the folks that you’re in touch with in the fire investigation field to check in with us again on the podcast. Again, we’re trying to keep things a little bit tighter. We’re also trying to make sure we get involved in case studies and some more relevant issues to the timeframe, things that are more recent to all of us. With that, I’d like to say thank you very much to Dan Hebert, Trace Lawless, and Kate Reed from the IAAI office. Thanks to all of you, and have a good day. I hope you all also have a very nice Thanksgiving holiday. For the International Association of Arson Investigators and CFITrainer.Net, I’m Rod Ammon.