The IAAI and CFITrainer.Net present these podcasts with a focus on issues relating to fire investigation. With expertise from around the world, the International Association of Arson Investigators produces these podcasts to bring more information and electronic media to fire investigators looking for training, education and general information about fire investigation. Topics include recent technologies, issues in the news, training opportunities, changes in laws and standards and any other topic that might be of interest to a fire investigator or industry professional affected by fire. Information is presented using a combination of original stories and interviews with scientists, leaders in fire investigation from the fire service and the law enforcement community.
Welcome to IAAI’s December 2011 CFITrainer.Net Podcast. In this podcast, we talk to one of the presenters from this year’s IAAI Annual Training Conference, Richard Vicars, about dispelling the myth that low voltage assemblies are incompetent fire ignition sources. Then, we’ll hear more about the National Fire Research Laboratory’s new facility and see how a single photo broke the Provo Tabernacle fire case.
We begin by welcoming Richard Vicars, who gave a popular and eye-opening presentation at this year’s ATC back in June called "Low Voltage: The Incompetent Ignition Source - Dispelling the Myth." Welcome to the podcast, Richard.
Q: Welcome to the podcast Richard.
RICHARD VICARS: I’m glad to be here.
Q: What assumptions have been made in the past about the ignition capability of low voltage electrical products?
RICHARD VICARS: Well, pretty much the assumptions have been broad-based in that investigators are quick to look to what are considered the high voltage ignition sources. And when I say high voltage just there’s a range from anywhere from what’s coming out of your wall down to what is produced by what’s called a class II transformer, which is usually in the 24 to 30 volt range. That’s typically where people have focused. The low voltage that I’m talking about is orders of magnitude below that as a competent ignition source.
Q: What was the basis for those assumptions?
RICHARD VICARS: I’m not sure actually. I’ve been in this industry for about ten years, and before this I was in failure analysis capabilities at some Fortune 100 companies, and I honestly don’t know where it comes from. I think it comes from a lack of understanding of the chemistries and the scale of how fires can start on electronic assemblies, and as it gets confused with how compartment fires generate, which are two totally different vehicles from a fire dynamic standpoint. So I think if I had to guesstimate, that’s probably where that is coming from.
Q: What’s causing us to now challenge the long-held belief that low voltage electrical products do not possess sufficient energy to cause ignition? What’s changed?
RICHARD VICARS: Well, simply what we’re seeing in the field, and what we’re seeing in the field tracks with axiom called Moore’s Law by Robert Moore, who is one of the co-founders of Intel, who said about every 18 months you’re going to see a doubling of your horsepower in your computer devices and a halving of the amount of real estate used, and as that happens, as things get more dense and they get more powerful, and your computers and your cell phones get more powerful and smaller, the density of the electronics increases and the pitch or the spacings between the electronic components gets smaller.
Well, as that happens the processes that create those products are also more sensitive to - we’ll call it the chemistries to produce a high quality board, and I think it’s that miniaturization and the lack of understanding of industry, or at least in the investigation community of what that means when those products go into a certain environment and how they can behave when they get into certain failure modes that can produce fires.
Q: How can ignition at low voltages occur?
RICHARD VICARS: Well here’s a good example. Let’s say you have a remote control for your television set and you’ve got a 9-volt battery in it or you’ve got three or four AA or AAA batteries in it. If that remote control is sitting on your countertop and you’re not home and it was designed and manufactured in such a way that the circuit board has a certain level of what is called ionic contamination on the board, which is a slurry of unwanted contaminants on the board that are a result of the manufacturing process being out of control, then you can get what are called sneak circuits, unintentional circuits forming, that actually develop circuit paths that you don’t want and also develop resistance paths or conductance paths that you don’t want, and when that occurs not only does the device start behaving in an erratic fashion; i.e., it can tell it to do things or control the controlling device in ways it’s not intended to do, but it can also have hotspots in and of itself between the circuit traces generating on the circuit board itself, and it’s those hotspots that in the presence of the right level of contamination and in the presence of circuit boards that aren’t really following the flame retardant requirements as they should, that are also contained in plastics that aren’t following the flame retardancy requirements that they should, you have a pretty good recipe for a fire.
Q: It’s amazing to think that a remote control can start a fire.
RICHARD VICARS: People will dismiss battery powered products, like I say, and I think that falls into the misnomer that just because it’s a small battery doesn’t mean it has sufficient energy to create a competent ignition source, and that just isn’t true, and that’s, like I said, as we keep looking at the finer pitch technologies and the battery technologies that are putting more and more current into these smaller devices, we do have enough energy to sustain a fire.
Q: What are a few examples of real cases where a low voltage electrical product was the fire cause?
RICHARD VICARS: Well, here’s an interesting one, and this kind of goes into the my area of origin is not necessarily where my root cause of the fire is. In other words, I have fire damage in a room, but the fire, the cause of the fire actually occurred in an area where I had no fire. And most people say well, how’s that possible? That’s not possible. And again, this is one of the misnomers in our industry. Well, when you’re talking about homes, for instance, which have networks and distributed audio, we’ll call them even smart homes, but the average home, I can have a fire in a compartment, which is where the fire broke out or where the failure mechanism finally resulted in the heat source that came in contact with the first fuel and developed into the fire, but my failure that precipitated that event could have been on a device that was wired into the product that finally caught on fire, and example of that is I had a case about eight years ago I think - and I’ve had several since actually - where I had an audio system in a home that was reportedly working fine by the homeowner, and then the fire broke out and the investigators honed in on the area of origin in the vicinity of a speaker. Well, speakers in and of themselves don’t catch on fire unless they’re overdriven or there’s some other defect in them, and that wasn’t the case in the scenario.
So in looking at the damage to the speaker and everyone agreeing that’s the area of greatest damage, which per 921 can be a gotcha if that’s the way you’re looking for your area of origin, I looked back to say well what was driving the speaker? And as I looked further down the line and followed the wires back I came to an amplifier and the amplifier was not fire damaged. It had a little bit of heat on the surface, but it was not in the area of origin. As we took that apart and did some diagnostics on it, we found that there were levels of non-fire introduced manufacturing contamination on the circuit boards that were causing these stray circuits that I previously discussed, and those stray circuits were not only causing this amplifier to turn on when it was not asked to turn on but it was causing the - without getting too technical - which was causing the rail voltage or the total power of this amplifier to basically transmit into the speaker. So instead of just getting a nice sound or audio wave form, we were getting an amount of current or power into that speaker that it wasn’t designed to take because of the contamination bridging on the amplifier circuit board.
So again, that was interesting because as we looked at it and everybody was scratching their head and saying well the amplifier even plays because we hooked it up to a speaker, and it did, and as you would play the amplifier and as you hooked it up to the right analytical gear, you would see that the signal was modified, it wasn’t a correct audio signal, it had a high level of what’s called DC voltage on it or DC offset, which said to me that it was getting a voltage that it wasn’t designed to produce and we had to figure out why, and that came down to specific board level testing through a machine called an ion chromatography analyzer that came back and said here are the contaminants, here’s where they are, here’s why they shouldn’t be there, and here’s what they’re doing to produce this sneak circuit which is overstressing the speaker and basically causing it to become a glow wire.
Q: Wow, and the amplifier was off?
RICHARD VICARS: Well, the homeowner had reported that at the time of the fire it was off, but another misnomer with solid state electronics over the last 20 years is there’s really no such thing as anything being off any more. So when you put - sort of turn the off button on your computer and when you press the off button on your phone, all you’re doing is putting that product into a suspended state of animation via software. The microprocessor’s still running, it’s pulling at a very high rate to see if you’re touching that on button, and when it does it says okay, I’m going to pop to life, but it’s really never powered down. So the homeowner, you know, as far as they were concerned everything was fine, but when we went looking at the audio signal and then actually tried to accelerate the condition with raising ambient humidity just slightly the effect was dramatic, and you can still hear audio over a signal that is disrupted by this level of contamination, unless you’re an audio file with a golden ear I call it, you’re not going to really notice a degradation in sound drop-off until you get to the failure mode where the speaker goes into an end state like we did in this one fire and we actually had breakout at the speaker.
Q: You know, when you mention all the things related to amplifiers and speakers it makes a guy like me pretty nervous.
RICHARD VICARS: And again, not to cause a false alarm, because most of the products that we buy and we have in our homes are actually manufactured to very high quality standards, and these are companies that are striving to hit six sigma quality levels, and most of them are doing a good job. On the practical side, things like this do happen when processes, and I’ve seen a lot of products coming out of the Pacific Rim, when the processes are not following their central line and producing failure rates, we’ll call it, that are higher than industry norms.
Q: How can fire investigators incorporate this information into their hypothesis testing process?
RICHARD VICARS: Good question, and I’ve been asked that many times. The first thing you need to do is you need to open up your eyes to a larger area of interest I call it, not just the area of origin. So in my example, don’t just consider the room that flashed over, take a step back and think about all of the wires, interconnection products that are talking inside and out of that room. And as you do that, you’re going to want to harvest all of those things, especially if you have a room that’s fully involved in fire. You’re going to be taking everything in that room anyways, but you might want to consider if I have a modem that was outside of that room that was wired into the PC or that was wired into the distributed audio amp or whatever it is that was in the area of fire.
So you’re going to want to expand your area of origin to what I call an area of interest. That’s number one. Number two is you don’t want to casually, and I’ve seen this on many fire scenes. You’re not going to want to casually just dismiss or walk on top of battery powered devices and just say well, it wasn’t plugged in, it’s battery powered, therefore, it’s not a competent ignition source. That’s how evidence gets destroyed and lost and spoliated. You want to be careful when you’re processing the scene. You want to grab those things and you want to preserve them in a way, especially if it’s solid state electronics gear, that subsequent analysis is still possible. And what I mean by that is you want to preserve it in such a way that if you have to do any type of chemistry testing on the circuit boards, you haven’t degraded or put any type of other residue from the fire scene onto the board that would cause a false reading or a poor reading in ion chromatography.
So the investigator would want to have, for instance, the simplest thing to do, and I think the most practical, is to have, for instance, tin foil, and to have tin foil that you wrap these circuit boards in tightly and then you put it in your evidence collection bag, you mark it and it goes through the processing and the chain of custody as normal. But that will at least protect the circuit board from any additional residues, mishandling, from being stepped on, and hopefully will retain enough of the original condition that more specific testing, like I mentioned ion chromatography, can go in and hone in further on what the chemistries of the boards were pre-fire. So that’s another thing that the investigator needs to do.
Beyond that, and this kind of falls out of the purview of the investigator but may be in the purview of the engineer, they need to have an understanding and appreciation for the actual schematic and the functional operation of the product that they’re investigating. They need to understand, for instance, in the amplifier example that I discussed, how boards are laid out, how components are soldered to boards, how traces are so close together that I could couple a voltage that’s supposed to be a very low signal level, I could couple that voltage directly under the input of a speaker and it’s not supposed to be there. So you have to have an appreciation and an ability to do the circuit analysis that I think in our industry we tend to fall short of, we tend to look at branch circuit wires, we tend to look at arc sites and arc mapping throughout a room, but we tend to then stop when we say, wow, I think it’s getting too tough, now we have to look at electronics and fine-pitched semi-conductor devices and I just think a lot of people tend to want to say well, you know, if I’ve got to get to that level I just don’t know if I can take it to the fire cause there. Well, there are fire causes there, we need to step it up.
Q: Seems like another place where fire investigators have more demands, need to collect more evidence and protect the scene from spoliation.
RICHARD VICARS: And that’s a great point, and that marries up well with the latest addition of 921 and previous additions is that it is our responsibility to protect evidence such that everybody in the investigation process, all the notified parties, anybody that’s trying to figure out what happened gets the same evidentiary value from what was processed and harvested, and in doing that and thinking about when you’re walking through the first scene and you’re starting to process it, that you have the responsibility to harvest all these pieces of product - even though you might not think, for whatever reason, and your training says I just don’t believe that’s possible, you have the obligation to do that because somebody else is going to be following you up that might have the knowledge skills, education experience to take that level of analysis further and you need to afford them the opportunity to do it because at the end of the day - and this is my sanity test for all of this - you know, low voltage fires, 921 aside, if we don’t do this and if we don’t get to root cause, then we don’t prevent fires from occurring. So that’s my sanity test. If I haven’t been able to drive this down to that level of root cause where I could take an action to prevent this from recurring, then I haven’t prevented fires from occurring again, and I think that’s what we’re here to do isn’t it?
Q: Thanks for wrapping up with prevention Richard. So many people think that fire investigation is only about arson. Our audience is out there every day working to reduce the number of fires whether they’re intentional or accidental.
RICHARD VICARS: Well, obviously if there’s a bad guy we want to put him away, but I think if everybody thinks of it in those terms it kind of makes you more - it keeps you very objective I think is the way I look at it.
Q: Thanks again for your time Richard. You’ve made our job here at CFITrainer easier with peer information that can help investigators in the field.
RICHARD VICARS: Thank you.
Now, let’s turn to the news.
NIST has announced that the National Fire Research Laboratory is adding a new 21,400 square foot laboratory space to its existing Large Fire Laboratory that will greatly expand its capacity to conduct research in the fire performance of structures. By accommodating fires of up to 20 MW heat release and full-scale structures up to two stories high, the new facility will be allow more realistic fires and structural loading under controlled laboratory conditions. An experimental database on the performance of large-scale structures subjected to fire is also planned. The research at the new facility is expected to significantly improve the knowledge base of fire-resistive performance of materials, structures, building design, and building construction. The expansion, and the subsequent research it will enable, will allow scientists and engineers from industry, academia, and government agencies to work side-by-side to tackle critical knowledge gaps and solve technical problems. More information on this project and the facility’s specifications can be found using the link on this podcast’s page.
Our second news story demonstrates how a single photograph can be critically important to determining fire cause. On December 16, 2010, The Provo Tabernacle in Provo, Utah was preparing for a Christmas concert to be held the next day. During the preparations, a camera operator for Brigham Young University Broadcasting named Scott Morgan became curious about the architecture of the historic building. While looking at the Tabernacle attic’s interesting truss structure, he took a picture with his cell phone. The very next day, the Tabernacle was nearly destroyed by fire. Parts of the façade survived, but the roof completely collapsed and the interior was gutted, making the fire investigation very difficult. But investigators caught a break - a friend of fire marshal Lynn Schofield sent a message that his son had taken a picture of the attic just the day before the fire. The friend’s son was Scott Morgan. When investigators examined the photo, they saw a lamp that had been placed on a combustible wooden speaker housing. That evidence in the photo resolved conflicting witness statements about the lighting for the concert. That lamp had been moved to that location during the concert preparations. Its 300 watt bulb was energized during a dress rehearsal for the concert and subsequently ignited the wooden speaker enclosure. The final report found that the fire’s severity was worsened by the lack of automatic sprinklers and a fire notification system, as well as failure by employees to alert the fire department of smoke odor and recognize the fire alarm. The Church has announced that the tabernacle will be restored.
We close with IAAI news.
In January 2012 IAAI will roll out the first offering of the Evidence Collection Technician practicum in Indianapolis. Upon successful completion of the pre-requisites and testing, the candidates will hold the newest IAAI-ECT designation. Please see the website for details.
Planning is underway for the IAAI 63rd Annual Training Conference being held April 22-27, 2012 at Dover Downs in Delaware. Again this year, IAAI brings you topics that are pertinent in the fire investigation field today, they will be instructed by world-class leaders in the industry. New at this 2012 ATC is a week-long track designed specifically for the insurance industry - The track was developed and will be taught by some of the industry's leading instructors on insurance fraud and investigation.
That concludes this IAAI CFITrainer.Net podcast. Don’t forget to check out the links on this podcast’s page for more information on this month’s stories.
For the IAAI and CFITrainer, I’m Rod Ammon.
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