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 special edition of the IAAI’s CFITrainer.Net podcast. Today, we’re going to meet the newest IAAI Investigator of the Year, Andrea Buchanan. She is an assistant fire marshal and the supervisor of fire/arson investigations for the Alexandria Fire Department in Alexandria, Virginia. This spring, Assistant Fire Marshal Buchanan was presented with IAAI’s Investigator of the Year Award for her work on the Southern Towers fire. IAAI gives the Investigator of the Year Award annually to an individual who has shown outstanding achievement through the use of professional expertise in both the criminal and civil fields of arson control. Assistant Fire Marshal Buchanan is with us today to talk about the Southern Towers case where her determination led to the arrest of a dangerous and somewhat unexpected serial arsonist who was terrorizing a high-rise apartment building. Welcome, Assistant Fire Marshal Buchanan, and thanks for talking with us today.
ANDREA BUCHANAN: You’re welcome.
ANDREA BUCHANAN: The Southern Tower complex is a high-rise complex constructed in the 1960s. It’s a total of, I believe, five high-rise residential buildings. They’re concrete in construction, and they have no sprinkler systems and manual fire alarm. What started the case was I responded for a report of a fire in the hallway. A fire was set in the carpet, small, probably the size of a cantaloupe, if you can think of that in circumference, but it was in the middle of the hallway and in the middle of the night, and looking at that and knowing that we had no sprinkler system, I took notice of it and did a complete origin-and-cause report and started doing an investigation, speaking with the folks on the floor where the original fire started. Due to the fact that it’s 1,500 people in the single building that we were dealing with, most of them are new to this country and have very limited English skills, older residents, and residents with young families. I felt that there was an urgency in this because I felt that there were going to be other fires, and it was correct. We started having similar fires, but they were all small in nature. The fires were in the middle of the floor on the carpeting. They were in the trash rooms. They were pamphlets, bulletins on the board, so it started escalating at which time I really felt that I had a serial arsonist on my hands.
ROD AMMON: So I mean, first of all, it’s pretty insightful, I think, for somebody to take the concern that you did with small fires, but I understand in this situation with so many people in this building that that raised the alarm for you I guess even sooner. So what happened? Who did you reach out to?
ANDREA BUCHANAN: Of course I got with my staff and told them - and in all fires, no matter how small, we were to handle them as if it was the largest fire. I wanted a complete origin-and-cause done. Also, as a task force officer, with the Falls Church ATF, I reached out to my federal partners. I explained to them what I had, the unimaginable size of the building that I had, and I had really no set patterns. At that time, Falls Church stepped in, and the ATF were fabulous in giving me the manpower, the insight, the equipment that I needed to continue with this investigation.
ROD AMMON: So there was a lot of work from what I understand. Can you talk about the process and how it built?
ANDREA BUCHANAN: What we did is we sat down and we decided that obviously we had to figure out a pattern. One of the greatest helps in developing that pattern was through BATS, the Bomb Arson Tracking System, that the ATF has for fire investigative departments throughout the country, and due to their tireless work, they were able to establish a pattern and what the most likely floors that they would hit on again. Once we started looking at that, we ended up getting with the technical folks at ATF, and they were able to put in cameras that were just unbelievable. Due to the building being basically a concrete shell, everything - putting a camera in, especially with the large amount of people and movement that goes through the building, we had to use some very innovative ways to get in to get the cameras put up.
ROD AMMON: I can imagine that not only running wires would be difficult but even transmission through those walls was a challenge.
ANDREA BUCHANAN: It was the transmission through the walls, getting them put up, and people asking questions as to who we were, and the noise, because some of the walls we had to drill - use large drills to be able to mount the equipment within the available space. A lot of times we told folks we were with Cable Vision to the electric company to whatever you can imagine. Also, we were able to obtain an apartment to which we utilized throughout the investigation, which became our base of operations.
ROD AMMON: You had mentioned that a lot of the folks that were in this building had recently come to this country. Tell me a little bit about the communication and the trust issues and what you had to do related to interviewing and surveillance.
ANDREA BUCHANAN: Well, what we found was a lot of the folks that had just recently arrived to the United States were from countries that there was a large distrust of the government and more so the police. We had to work extremely hard in gaining the trust of the families and then the different demographics that we had to deal with. Some of the people that we interviewed did not allow men to interview the women and vice versa, so we had to be very cognizant of that and know what we were going into prior to interviewing, and unfortunately, in the beginning with these fires, it was more of a nuisance to the people in the building than it was anything of fear, and we really had to put people on notice that if they saw something they needed to say something to us.
ROD AMMON: So quite a challenge, but you overcame.
ANDREA BUCHANAN: Yes, we did.
ROD AMMON: That’s great to hear. So tell me a little bit more about the case. I’m thinking back to something related to what I had read about the story with a refrigerator box.
ANDREA BUCHANAN: My biggest fear was that the fires were going to escalate, as was the ATF’s, and we did so much in person, on-premises surveillance to where we had an apartment that was ours for almost eight months. We had the keys. We went in there. When we would go in there, we would go in there in plain clothes so nobody knew the difference that it was investigators. They just thought it was a new person living on the floor. In fact, we became friends with several people on the floor, thinking we just lived there, and in December, a large refrigerator box sitting outside the trash room in the elevator lobby in the main floor, on the seventh floor, was ignited and caused approximately $50,000 worth of damage, filled the seventh floor full of smoke, and it really put fear into the residents of the building.
ROD AMMON: I can imagine so, and even more support for your earlier concerns, and I’m guessing that led to more support from folks around you?
ANDREA BUCHANAN: Yes. At that point, I was - in the beginning I had tried to solicit dedicated personnel to this case and only this case. At that point, we were going through severe budget cuts, and I was looking at the elimination of pretty much half of the office, of the staff. Police were working with their budgets, and it just wasn’t, at that time, beneficial with the size of the fires to them, cost benefit to give that dedicated staff to me. It quickly changed when the December fire hit.
ROD AMMON: I can imagine. I’m thinking during all this time, it must have been amazing to you to have all this surveillance going on, know all of these people, be interviewing all these people, and still not have leads.
ANDREA BUCHANAN: It was. It became - I will say it became all-consuming for 10 months that this case went. It was all consuming, night, day. It was - any call whatsoever that went to that building where we were having the fires, I was notified, so if you had a kitchen fire, if you had any type of alarm that went there, I was being notified so it was something to which kept me on edge and kept our staff on edge, not knowing when the big one was going to hit, for lack of better words.
ROD AMMON: You mentioned the alarm. There was another issue with the alarm system that was relevant. Could you talk a little bit about that?
ANDREA BUCHANAN: Well, the alarm system was a manual pull system, and very few people would use that system, and if the power went down or if they were doing maintenance, the system would be down. Obviously, as I stated prior, there was no sprinkler system within the building. When we ended up making an arrest, the power was going to go down that night, and this had stressed that individual to the point that we were, and still are, convinced that the fire that we were dreading was going to take place.
ROD AMMON: You had mentioned that you installed cameras with the help of the ATF and some of their technical folks, and I’m wondering could you tell a little bit about what happened with those cameras, how it evolved?
ANDREA BUCHANAN: We had - when - after we had spoke with the analyst from the Bomb Arson Tracking System program, they had given us three floors to which they felt that if the arsonist was going to hit, these were going to be the most probable floors. At that time, we placed cameras. We ended up putting cameras on these floors, and I believe it was the third floor, the fifth floor, and the seventh floor. The seventh floor was where we had our base of operations apartment out of, and the - we ended up having a series of fires. One of the fires - the camera was set out of view, so they set the fire, but the camera didn’t pick up the individual. The subsequent fire, the camera failed to operate. There was a problem within the camera, and it just failed to operate, and then on the third, when we went ahead and put in a new camera with ATF and their technicians, we caught the person on camera.
ROD AMMON: And who was that?
ANDREA BUCHANAN: It was a 70-year-old female that lived on the seventh floor.
ROD AMMON: Pretty surprising.
ANDREA BUCHANAN: Yes. We had - when we had started, we had gone through the Behavioral Analysis Unit in Quantico, and it was believed that it was going to be a male that was between a certain age and a certain age, and this was primarily what we were looking for. Everybody was a suspect, but you kind of started going towards that, and when we found out - when we looked at - reviewed the film that night when we had the fire and we had a good capture on the film, on the camera, every one of our jaws dropped.
ROD AMMON: Wow. So now you have this video. Tell us about confronting her.
ANDREA BUCHANAN: Well, on the night of the fire, we had had the video. We knew who our suspect was. We went down and interviewed her under the guise that we were interviewing everybody on the seventh floor. I had gone along with special - senior special agent, Chad Campanell, had accompanied me to the suspect’s apartment. When we got in there and started to interview her, we explained what we were looking for, did she see anything, and started asking her questions, what she felt should happen to somebody who sets fires, and we were recording the interview the whole time. She was very curious about our iPhones and about cameras, and Agent Campanell explained to her that the iPhones had more computing power in them than the Apollo missions, and she was fascinated by that, and that the cameras that we used were no bigger than the tip of a pen and that we had the person that set the fire, but we explained to her that we had to have the film developed, that it had to go to Quantico so it wouldn’t be until the next day until we were able to get the film developed even though it was video. And the change in her became drastic. She became very thirsty to where she had been very chatty, became very quiet. Her feelings of what should happen to somebody who sets fires changed drastically.
ROD AMMON: I bet.
ANDREA BUCHANAN: To one of compassion versus prosecution, and at that point, we left her. We obtained a search warrant, and we left a - investigators doing complete surveillance on her A) to see if she would fled - flee, set another fire, or unfortunately, something more drastic, and at that point we got a search warrant and obtained warrants for arrest the next day.
ROD AMMON: And she pled.
ANDREA BUCHANAN: She pled guilty to arson. She admitted to dozens of fires that were set in the building and said it was as a way to relieve stress. She had had multiple changes in her life, retirement. She was lonely. The weather had been extremely bad that year, so she wasn’t able to get out, and every time they would do something in the building such as a power outage or cleaning the filters, whatever, that caused the stress and that was her retaliation towards the building was to set fires. Unfortunately, the courts felt that - at that time she had turned 73 years old, that for her to spend any time in jail was not beneficial to her at that age, so she was released and placed on probation, monitored probation.
ROD AMMON: Wow, that’s very surprising, and so how do we know that she can’t do this again?
ANDREA BUCHANAN: We don’t. That’s one of the concerns. We obviously keep close contact with the probation office to see where she’s at, where she’s living. Any fires that we have that match anything towards what her previous fires were, we’re looking strongly into that, but there hasn’t been any fires. We know where she’s at, and she’s evidently thriving well with the help she’s getting and whatnot. It was a letdown, but again, that’s our judicial system, and we go with that as they do.
ROD AMMON: As you see this case now and after you had that footage and you were so blown away, you and your whole team as you say, did you look back and go wow, I should have thought of this. Were there any moments where you sort of looked back, once there was a connection, where you looked back at some of the burns that you had found and made some connection?
ANDREA BUCHANAN: Absolutely. We had - one night we had had a fire where we were investigating a fire, and a fire was set less than 50 feet around the corner from us while we were investigating it, and we had a chance to interview this individual on one of the evenings of a fire, and we had written it up. Agent Campanell had written it up, and we kind of kept our eye on her. We did surveillance on her, but nothing came of it, and in the end when it ended up being her, as we said, our Spidey-sense was right. We did, but I can only say through the course of this investigation never be afraid to ask for help.
ROD AMMON: You mentioned budget cuts, but I mean there had to be things that were great challenges in this case. What would you say those were, and are there things you would want to share with other investigators as to how you got by those challenges?
ANDREA BUCHANAN: I found one of the biggest challenges was for the executives within our department to listen, to understand what I had, to understand that what I was saying, what we were saying, was just. Unfortunately, a lot of times when you’re dealing with a fire department as a whole and when there’s budgets, unfortunately, the nonoperational, as they’re called, components of a department are looked upon as being the first to be cut, and there’s a lot of times a lot of misunderstandings on what we do as fire investigators within a suppression department outside of a police department that handles it or a stand-alone fire marshal’s office.
Sometimes it’s looked upon, well, they’re just small fires. You’re overreacting, but it’s not an overreaction, and you just have to stay resilient and keep on pounding away at it and say there’s something here, there’s something here, and eventually they listen. In our case, we were lucky. It was escalating, and we were able to stop it before it escalated to the worst case possible, but there were ups and downs in this case. When the police department finally did come on board, there was somewhat of a power struggle as to who was going to handle the case, but we stayed resolute, our team, and we were - and while we worked wonderfully with our police department, absolutely wonderful, again, it’s - our area is such a specialized area that a lot of people don’t understand that you can’t handle it like a burglary. You can’t handle it as an auto theft or any other crime. It’s specialized.
ROD AMMON: That’s an excellent point. Dozens and dozens of small fires over several months and you went to every one, and very possible that you saved lives and awesome work. I’m thinking that often investigators are praised for solving cases that involve huge losses or multiple fatalities or with a lot of publicity. You’ve been honored by the folks at the IAAI for solving a case where there was no catastrophic damage and no one was hurt. You closed it before that happened, and I’m wondering if there are any takeaways that you want to share in this case or specifically to serial arson.
ANDREA BUCHANAN: Stay resolute. If you feel that it’s - if it just doesn’t seem right, 95% of the time it’s not right. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be afraid to treat that small fire as if it’s the largest fire you ever worked. Don’t be afraid to do old-fashioned police work and knock on doors and speak to people. Don’t be afraid to say I’m at a brick wall. Where do I go from here? There are going to be these ups and downs in a serial arson case. While mine, by far from what I’ve spoke to folks from across the country who have worked just major, major cases involving millions upon millions of dollars’ worth of damage and/or loss of life, to me I didn’t want that to go here. I knew I had something. I had the belief and the support of my federal partners and my investigators in the office and if I can just say go - run the course.
You’re going to hit brick walls. You’re going to get frustrated. You’re going to laugh. You’re going to cry. You’re going to think you’re going to lose your mind sometimes, and you’re going to be doubted, and be prepared for that, but in the end, the main goal is getting somebody that’s setting fires off the street, getting them to stop, and if you can do that, it’s a win. It’s a win all the way around. Whether they went to jail or not, she’s no longer setting fires, and 10 months of lost sleep, that night that we put her in jail was the best night of sleep I ever had.
ROD AMMON: I bet it was. Andrea, thank you for joining us today and congratulations on this well-deserved and hard-earned honor.
ANDREA BUCHANAN: Thank you.
ROD AMMON: That concludes this podcast. Stay safe, and we’ll see you next time on CFITrainer.Net.
This program provides a primer on accreditation, certification, and certificates for fire investigation training.
A fire occurred on the night of Feb. 20, 2003, in The Station nightclub at 211 Cowesett Avenue, West Warwick, Rhode Island.
Arc Mapping, or Arc Fault Circuit Analysis, uses the electrical system to help reconstruct a scene, providing investigators with a means of determining the area of a fire’s origin.
This module introduces basic electrical concepts, including: terminology, atomic theory and electricity, Ohm’s Law, Joule’s Law, AC and DC power.
A fire occurred on the evening of June 18, 2007, in the Sofa Super Store in Charleston, SC that resulted in the deaths of nine fire fighters.
This module looks at the many ways fire investigators enter and grow in the profession through academia, the fire service, law enforcement, insurance, and engineering.
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.
The program discusses the basics of digital photography for fire investigators as well as software and editing procedures for digital images intended as evidence.
This self-paced program is an introduction to discovery in civil proceedings such as fire loss claims and product defect lawsuits.
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 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 teaches first responders, including fire, police and EMS, how to make critical observations.
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.
This program takes you inside the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) archives of some of the most interesting and instructive test burns and fire model simulations they have ever conducted.
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.
This self-paced program is the second part of a two-part basic introduction to motor vehicle systems. This program describes the function and major components of the transmission, exhaust, brake, and accessory systems.
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.
The program illustrates for the fire investigator, how non-traditional fire scene evidence can be helpful during an investigation.
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 lays the groundwork for understanding marine fires by covering four basic concepts that the investigator must understand before investigating a marine fire.
In this module, you will learn more about how cancer develops, what occupational exposure risks to carcinogens exist at fire scenes, and how to better protect yourself against those exposures.
The use of the process of elimination in the determination of a fire cause is a topic that has generated significant discussion and controversy in the fire investigation profession.
This module teaches the basics of the electrical power generation, distribution, and transmission system.
This module presents the basics of natural gas and its uses and system components in a residence.
This module explains the principles of search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment, as contained in the amendment and according to subsequent case law, and applies them to typical fire scene scenarios.
One of the legal proceedings that may require the fire investigator to testify is a deposition. Depositions are often related to civil proceedings, but more and more jurisdictions are using them in criminal cases.
Deposing attorneys employ a variety of tactics to learn about the expert witness giving testimony, to try to unsettle that witness to see how he/she handles such pressure, and to probe for weaknesses to exploit.
This module provides introductory information on the Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) standard – 29 CFR 1910.120.
The program examines the importance of assessing the impact of ventilation on a fire.
This module demonstrates the investigative potential of information stored on electronic devices.
This module explains the relationship between NFPA 1033 and NFPA 921
The basics of the scientific method are deceptively simple: observe, hypothesize, test, and conclude.
This module addresses the foundations of thermometry, including the definition of temperature, the scales used to measure temperature and much more.
This program presents the results of flame experiments conducted with a candle.
This self-paced program explains to non-investigators the role of the fire investigator, what the fire investigator does, how the fire investigator is trained, what qualifications the fire investigator must meet.
This module will untangle the meanings of "undetermined," straighten out how to use the term correctly, talk about how not to use it, and describe how to properly report fires where "undetermined" is the cause or classification.
This module will advise fire investigators on how to approach the fact-finding procedures necessary and validate a hypothesis.
This module provides an overview on how structures can become vacant and eventually abandoned.
This self-paced program provides a basic framework for structuring the management of fire cases and fire investigators.
This module illustrates how wildland fires spread, explains how to interpret burn patterns unique to these types of fires.
This module presents the key elements of the initial origin and cause report and methods of clearly presenting findings in a professional manner.