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.
ROD AMMON: Welcome to this edition of the IAAI’s CFITrainer.Net podcast. Today, we’re going to talk about something that some investigators might take for granted — their evidence collection tools — and why continued vigilance is critical to protecting the integrity of your samples that you collect at fire scenes.
In mid-March 2012, Analytical Forensic Associates tested three samples from a fire scene. Two of the three tested positive for a medium aromatic product. The third sample tested negative for ignitable liquid residues. Laurel Mason, Laboratory Director, noticed that the negative and positive samples were in different types of can. The two samples that tested positive for a medium aromatic product were contained in a half-gallon, gold-lined can that was provided by the investigating agency. The sample that was negative for ignitable liquid residue was contained in a one-gallon, gray-lined can that had been supplied by the laboratory. Curious, Ms. Mason looked back through previous cases submitted by the same agency and found two other cases earlier that year where samples were submitted in half-gallon, gold-lined cans. Ms. Mason contacted the agency and requested empty comparison cans that were half-gallon, gold-lined. These empty cans tested positive for a medium aromatic product. In 2015, Ray Kuk, a forensic chemist with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Forensic Laboratory, noticed the same issue. A positive sample of a light-to-medium aromatic product classified as an ignitable liquid was obtained from an empty half-gallon, gold-lined evidence collection can.
The half-gallon cans in question were lined with a new “FDA Gold Epoxy” consisting of Valspar 6256054 epoxy coating or possibly other trade name products. The issue with the gold-lined cans underscores the critical importance of sending a sample can from EVERY batch of newly-acquired evidence storage cans to the laboratory for analysis so that they can be confirmed as negative for ignitable, liquid-classified compounds. Failure to do this may jeopardize the results of testing on substances collected in the cans. An opposing attorney may argue that the can was not eliminated as a potential source of ignitable liquids found in the sample.
This issue brings up a larger question of what fire investigators should be doing on a consistent basis to ensure the integrity of the samples they collect. Today, Laurel Mason, Laboratory Director for Analytical Forensic Associates, is with us on the podcast to discuss what steps need to be taken to ensure the integrity of samples you send for laboratory analysis. Laurel, welcome to the podcast.
LAUREL MASON: Thank you.
ROD AMMON: So give us a little more detail about what happened with the gold epoxy-lined evidence cans. How was the issue discovered?
LAUREL MASON: We had a case in early January of 2002. We had a one-half gallon, and they were gold-lined cans. In that case, there was only one sample submitted, they analyzed the evidence just like we would routinely, and found a medium aromatic product. The second case was about 120 cases later in – also in 2002, about a month later. Additionally, this was only one sample submitted, and it also had a medium aromatic product. The third case was in late March, and this was about 200 cases later, so there was a good bit of time in between it. In this case, there were three samples submitted, one regular one-gallon can, which was provided by our laboratory, and two one-half gallon cans. Both of the half-gallon cans contained the medium aromatic product.
At that point, a flag just kind of started to rise because we see medium aromatic products from time to time but not this frequently. I looked at the other two cases, and they were all from the same client, looked at those two cases, realized that we’re seeing it in the same type of sample container, and it was an unusual size because we don’t see it very often. I contacted the client, requested that he send us some cans, and he overnighted them to us. I asked him where he got it. It was an online supplier. We analyzed the cans and found a medium aromatic product in each one of them. At that point, we had to issue revisions to the report, the first two reports, and then the third report we just indicated that medium aromatic product that was detected in the debris sample could not be eliminated from the can as the source.
ROD AMMON: So how did the ATF get involved?
LAUREL MASON: I believe ATF had somebody that had or had someone who had submitted containers that were the half-gallon size, and they may have seen the same thing.
ROD AMMON: His name is Ray – it’s Kuk. I think it’s Kuk.
LAUREL MASON: Right, Kuk.
ROD AMMON: Kuk, okay. So, did you two work together or had you found this independently?
LAUREL MASON: No, we discovered this back in March of – well, actually, the first case was in January of 2012, so we knew about it about four years ago, and then I was contacted I guess late last year. The ATF had also seen this, too.
ROD AMMON: So what did you – what should somebody do? I mean as an investigator, what should he or she do if they have gold epoxy-lined cans to package evidence?
LAUREL MASON: Throw them away. Don’t use them, especially the one-half gallon size. As a forensic laboratory, one of the things that we’re hugely concerned about is the quality of the sample and the integrity of the sample. As part of our quality control, we send to our clients cans, evidence cans, for collection of evidence specifically because we know that those cans, when they leave here, are clean cans because we run – every single day in our laboratory, we run what’s called a system blank, and we actually run one of our cans through the analytical process. Every one of our cans have a lot number, so we can actually look at and make sure three years down the road when we go to testify, here is the blank that we had on this lot number of cans, and we can show that to the jury if need be to show that it is clean. I think it’s important if a laboratory doesn’t receive cans that they know are legitimately clean that they request immediately a comparison can or note in their report that this can was not supplied by the laboratory.
ROD AMMON: So what’s the recommendation from the IAAI on evidence cans going forward as described in the technical bulletin?
LAUREL MASON: That you should submit a comparison sample if you don’t know – or a comparison can if you don’t know the source of the can.
ROD AMMON: Okay.
LAUREL MASON: If it’s not a can that was checked by the laboratory or supplied by the laboratory, you should always submit a comparison can.
ROD AMMON: Okay, so let’s widen out a little bit and talk about the overall issue of containers that investigators use to package evidence. What should investigators be doing with these containers to make sure that they’re not a source of contamination whether it’s a can, a bag, envelope, something else?
LAUREL MASON: Most laboratories that supply cans to their clients package them in boxes, and those cans are usually packaged, sealed with the lid already on the can, usually four to the box or something, and when the investigator receives that, they should leave them packaged in the box until the time comes that they want to use them. Make sure that they remain sealed, that they just don’t open them up and throw them in the back of their truck. That’s the best way to make sure that you don’t have any contaminations – contamination issues.
ROD AMMON: Okay, so besides that, should they also be sending in a bag or an envelope for comparison as well just like they did a can?
LAUREL MASON: Well, we don’t recommend submitting samples in regular Ziploc bags or anything that is not specifically designed to maintain fire evidence. There are the Kapak bags, which are the nylon bags. Those bags are designed for fire debris samples. However, they’re usefulness is kind of questioned sometimes, too, because the integrity of the sample can be compromised if there’s a sharp object that’s used that is packaged in that, that Kapak bag, it can easily rip, so then you have a problem with contamination from that aspect. Investigators should not be using zipper lock bag, regular zipper lock bags or any other type of bag or collection device unless the laboratory runs a comparison. In fact, my recommendation to all my clients is if you want to put something in a Ziploc bag, it’s probably going to be negative because it’s going to be – you’re going to lose your ignitable liquids because they’re porous bags.
ROD AMMON: Makes sense. So what are some of the other common errors? We’ve worked with folks in the lab industry or the lab business for a while, and I hear a lot of different things, and some of them stayed the same, and some of them are new like the gold can issue. So what are some of the common errors that you’re seeing out there where you’d like to see some change, some things that would help improve the integrity of collected samples?
LAUREL MASON: They’re very simple errors actually. Oftentimes, we get sample containers in here where the v-lock rim is not cleaned out. If you go to put your evidence inside the can and some of the debris gets in the v-lock of the can and you go to put your lid on it, it’s not going to seal properly. So simply just cleaning out the v-lock area from debris.
Another problem that we see quite frequently is improperly packaged liquids. The one-gallon and the one quart-lined evidence containers are designed for solid debris. They’re not designed for liquids. Unfortunately during shipping, because there is – the vapor pressure of the liquid that may be contained within – if you put a liquid inside one of these cans, the vapor pressure can cause the lid to rupture during shipment. The proper type of packaging for liquids, ignitable liquids for comparison or whatever are small glass vials. You don’t ever want to put it in a gallon or a quart can. Another important factor, and this is really becoming critical today, is to make sure that you have some kind of seal on your can that’s a tamper-evident seal whether it’s regular evidence tape or some other type of tape so that when the laboratory receives that evidence, they know that it has not been opened from the time that you placed that tape on that lid, and that’s becoming critical in a lot of cases, trial cases.
ROD AMMON: Okay, what about cross-contamination?
LAUREL MASON: Cross-contamination can easily occur if you don’t clean your tools between sampling. What we recommend is that if you’re in an area where you’re taking ignitable liquids and you can obviously smell like gasoline, kerosene, diesel fuel, whatever, that you take your weakest sample first, and then you go to take your strongest sample. My recommendation is that you clean your tools in between sampling and you can – that can easily be done with any type of good detergent that are on the market nowadays.
ROD AMMON: Okay, so I didn’t hear you mention headspace. Are people getting better at that?
LAUREL MASON: They are getting better at that. They’re getting much better at that. I think that that is quite obvious that we need to have that headspace in order to recover any of the volatile components. We very rarely see anybody pack a can all the way full and try to fit that lid on it.
ROD AMMON: That’s great to know. I know that probably has something to do with the training and education that you and others at the IAAI have been working on for years. I know that 10 years ago when we were involved in producing things, that was one of the main issues. It was just how to use a can and how to get that evidence sealed up.
LAUREL MASON: Yes.
ROD AMMON: So what other issues would you like to cover that you would like to get as a message out to fire investigators related to the lab or to contamination or preserving samples?
LAUREL MASON: I think it’s important that you work closely; the investigators work closely with the laboratory, and use their cans. I mean we supply those cans for a reason, and that is so that we can have the confidence that when we send them to you, they’re in good shape, good condition. They’re clean. We have the data to show that. If we get something that let’s say we have – like in this case where we had a medium aromatic product, we had no record of any type of background on this can, and it was just happenstance that I thought this is really getting kind of odd. This is three times in the last four months that we found a medium aromatic product, and it’s the same client, and once we – like I say, once we looked at the evidence containers, it was quite clear as to what was going on. I think it’s important to remember that nowadays in our litigious society that it is essential, essential that you tape-seal those cans because courts are not allowing them to be introduced as evidence because the chemist cannot testify as to the integrity of the sample.
ROD AMMON: Yeah, it needs to be maintained to chain of custody and okay. How about time?
LAUREL MASON: What do you mean?
ROD AMMON: Well, how often do you usually get your samples in a timely fashion? Does that affect what happens to your testing?
LAUREL MASON: Oh absolutely it does. One of the things that we’re seeing a lot more of now is the adjuster, and it’s usually the insurance adjuster wants to hold onto the evidence. They don’t want it analyzed right away. I guess they’re going through their process of adjusting the claim, and six, eight, 10 months goes by, and then they want to analyze the sample. Well, these cans are not 100% leak proof. It will evaporate to some degree, and not only that, the cans will start to oxidize on the outside, and you lose the integrity of the can that way, but what we’re seeing is yeah, a lot of people are starting to hold onto the evidence and just wait and have it analyzed. We’re seeing the same thing in vegetable oil on fat analysis, and with those types of samples, the longer it takes, the more degradation that goes on, and it’s not just – you’re not losing volatile components, but you’re losing the actual components that are the reactants in spontaneous heating cases.
ROD AMMON: So in some cases, somebody who might be holding onto evidence to – I don’t know, I’m guessing – to save time and money, might be hurting their own case.
LAUREL MASON: They’re absolutely hurting their own case.
ROD AMMON: Where can fire investigators go to try to stay up to date on these kind of technical issues?
LAUREL MASON: They can call their laboratories, and they can talk to their scientists, and they can listen to the podcast. They can go for training and education at the international level as well as some of the state classes that the state chapters are putting on. I know next month we’re having a state seminar, and two of my scientists are presenting to the membership or to the attendees evidence collection and preservation.
ROD AMMON: Okay, I really appreciate your time, Laurel.
ROD AMMON: We will look forward to seeing you at ITC I think this spring.
LAUREL MASON: Yeah, in May – March.
LAUREL MASON: April.
ROD AMMON: I think it’s May. We better fix that on the news.
LAUREL MASON: Alrighty.
ROD AMMON: Now, for IAAI news. IAAI 2016 ITC Orlando is almost here, so it’s time to register and firm up your travel plans if you haven’t already done so. This training conference is the biggest one in the US for fire investigators and allied professionals. More than 80 hours of training are available in one place over five days from April 24-29, so this is a great opportunity to fulfill NFPA 1033’s requirements to maintain an up-to-date basic knowledge beyond the high school level of the 1.3.7 topic list. If you’re a new to the profession, there is a full 40-hour basic fire investigation course offered as well. There will be plenty of networking opportunities. Plus, Orlando has great opportunities for recreation, sightseeing, and dining when the day’s sessions are over. We’re looking forward to seeing you at ITC from April 24-29. For more information, you can go to iaaiitc.com.
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.
IAAI Technical Bulletin on Contamination of Evidence Cans Lined with "Gold Epoxy" coating.
IAAI Evidence Collection App
IAAI 2016 ITC Orlando
This program provides a primer on accreditation, certification, and certificates for fire investigation training.
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This module will present a description of the IAAI organization.
This module takes a closer look at four of the most commonly-reported accidental fire causes according to "NFPA Fact Sheet.
This program brings three highly experienced fire investigators and an attorney with experience as a prosecutor and civil litigator together for a round table discussion.
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The program discusses the basics of digital photography for fire investigators as well as software and editing procedures for digital images intended as evidence.
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This self-paced program is an introduction to discovery in criminal proceedings.
This module covers the foundation of DNA evidence: defining, recognizing, collecting, and testing.
This program provides a practical overview of how to perform the baseline documentation tasks that occur at every scene.
This module will discuss the techniques and strategies for conducting a proper science-based fire scene investigation and effectively presenting an investigator’s findings in court as an expert witness.
This program explains the basic principles of how electric and hybrid vehicles are designed and work, including major systems and typical components.
This module presents critical electrical safety practices that every fire investigator should implement at every scene, every time.
In this program, we will look at emerging technologies that fire investigators are integrating into their daily investigative work with great success.
This self-paced program examines the fire investigator's ethical duties beyond the fire scene.
As social media has emerged as a powerful force in interpersonal communications, fire investigators are being confronted with new questions...
Should you work for a private lab as a consultant if you are on an Arson Task Force? How about accepting discounts from the local hardware store as a “thanks” for a job well done on a fire they had last year?
This module takes investigators into the forensic laboratory and shows them what happens to the different types of fire scene evidence that are typically submitted for testing.
This module teaches the foundational knowledge of explosion dynamics, which is a necessary precursor to investigating an explosion scene.
This module addresses the foundations of fire chemistry and places it within the context of fire scene investigations.
The program is designed to introduce a new Palm/Pocket PC application called CFI Calculator to users and provide examples of how it can be used by fire investigators in the field.
This module examines these concepts to help all professionals tasked with determining fire origin and cause better understand fire flow dynamics so they can apply that knowledge to both to fire investigation and to fire attack.
This module provides a road map for fire officers to integrate and navigate their fire investigation duty with all their other responsibilities and describes where to obtain specific training in fire investigation.
The evaluation of hazards and the assessment of the relative risks associated with the investigation of fires and explosions are critical factors in the management of any investigation.
This module will describe the most commonly encountered fire protection systems.
This module presents best practices in preparing for and conducting the informational interview with witnesses in the fire investigation case.
This module provides instruction on the fundamentals of residential building construction with an eye toward how building construction affects fire development.
This module provides introductory information on the Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) standard – 29 CFR 1910.120.
This module teaches first responders, including fire, police and EMS, how to make critical observations.
The program examines the importance of assessing the impact of ventilation on a fire.
This program discusses how to access insurance information, understand insurance documents, ask key questions of witnesses, and apply the information learned.
This module offers a basic introduction about how some selected major appliances operate.
This program introduces the fire investigator to the issues related to the collection, handling and use of evidence related to a fire investigation.
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The program provides foundational background on the scope of the youth-set fire problem, the importance of rigorous fire investigation in addressing this problem, and the role of key agencies in the response to a youth-set fire.
This module provides a thorough understanding of the ways an investigation changes when a fire-related death occurs.
This self-paced program will help you understand what to expect at a fire where an LODD has occurred, what your role is, how to interact with others, and how to handle special circumstances at the scene.
This program will introduce the fire investigator to the basic methodologies use to investigate vehicle fires.
This module presents the role natural gas can play in fire ignition, fuel load, and spread; the elements of investigating a fire in a residence where natural gas is present; and the potential role the gas utility or the municipality can play an investigation.
This self-paced program covers fundamental legal aspects of investigating youth-set fires, including the juvenile justice system, legalities of interviews and interrogations, arson statutes, search and seizure, and confidentiality.
This program discusses the latest developments in expert testimony under the Daubert standard, including the MagneTek case recently decided in the United States Circuit Court of Appeals.
This module focuses on how to manage investigations that have “complicating” factors.
This module uses the Motive, Means, and Opportunity case study to demonstrate how responsibility is determined in an arson case.
This program covers the general anatomy of a motor vehicle and a description of typical components of the engine, electrical, ignition, and fuel systems.
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This module educates the investigator about NFPA 1033’s importance, its requirements, and how those requirements impact the fire investigator’s professional development.
This module reviews the major changes included in the documents including the use of color photos in NFPA 921 and additional material that supports the expanded required knowledge list in NFPA 1033 Section 1.3.7.
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This module introduces the postflashover topic, describes ventilation-controlled fire flow, illustrates how the damage left by a postflashover can be significantly different than if that fire was extinguished preflashover.
This module demonstrates the investigative potential of information stored on electronic devices.
This module explains the relationship between NFPA 1033 and NFPA 921
This module lays the groundwork for understanding marine fires by covering four basic concepts that the investigator must understand before investigating a marine fire.
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