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: Thanks for joining us at this CFITrainer.Net podcast brought to you by the International Association of Arson Investigators. I’m Rod Ammon. Today we have a special guest, and from what I’ve been told by Kathy, who is one of our premier writers around here, she said, Rod, he doesn’t need an introduction. He wrote the book. He literally paved the way. He questioned conventional wisdom. He sometimes took on popular positions, and he has devoted his life to the profession of fire investigation. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, Dr. John DeHaan.
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: Well, thank you for that very nice introduction. Obviously, Kathy’s read the book and seen some of the bloodshed that’s resulted from it.
ROD AMMON: I think there’s what—there’s been seven editions. How many?
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: Yeah, I’ve been responsible for six since 1982 and 35 years, and kind of scary to think of it in those terms, but six editions have been mine.
ROD AMMON: And you worked with that—with Dave Icove I think also on that.
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: Only on the last edition.
ROD AMMON: Okay.
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: I was—my batteries were running kind of low, and I just couldn’t take on another revision solo, so Dave stepped in to help make sure it happened.
ROD AMMON: All right, so how did the name, Kirk’s, come about?
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: The first book, first college-level textbook on fire investigation was written by Paul Kirk as a scientist. He was the first scientist to actually author a book on fire investigation, and Professor Kirk was a professor of—actually officially biochemistry and criminalistics at the University of California at Berkeley. As part of that, he had a private consultancy. He did cases all over Northern California, in fact, across the US, and one of his favorite things was the chemistry of fire, so in 1969, he authored the first textbook on fire investigation actually written by a scientist rather than a police detective or a firefighter or insurance investigator.
And it was pretty—it was modestly successful. It stayed in print for 11 years. Professor Kirk himself died in 1970, and then in 1980 or ’81, the publisher came to me and said, we understand you know a lot about fire and you write pretty well, so would you be willing to take on the book? And I said, well, what of the original text do I have to retain? And they said, all you have to do is keep Dr. Kirk’s name associated with the title. Other than that, it’s yours.
Well, it turns out the book was so soundly written as a teaching textbook, logically developed from the simplest concepts right through fire development and fire dynamics and things like that as we knew it in the 1980s at least, and as a result, I kept the outline of the book. In fact, I’m sure Dr. Kirk would have recognized almost all of the major headings right through my development and ownership of the book, and it went from about 250 pages in a small-format book to almost 800 pages of a large-format textbook at the end of its span. I did the first edition of the book in 1982. I tried to avoid using the term science at all or even what we would recognize today as the scientific method. I think I called it the analytical method because I didn’t want to scare the readers off by saying, well, yeah, this is science and you need to know it. That’s what I built the book on was, as the science improved, our knowledge of fire processes improved.
I set hundreds or at least participated in hundreds and hundreds of fire tests involving all kinds of materials and ordinary combustibles, and we were going through a—kind of a revolution in fire investigation training at the time, thanks to some very forward-thinking investigators here in California especially. So we do live burns, but instead of presenting our students with a cold burn and saying, okay, I told you what you should look for; get in there and dig for it, they were there from the start. They helped set up the rooms.
They watched the fire, and then they dug a mag back out, and that was an important learning step because they were always afraid apparently that we were going to—that the instructors were going to play games and hide things and stuff like that. And they said, well, why—we saw the fire. That’s the point. You know what was in the room. You know how we started it. You got to watch it develop. You saw the temperatures when we were able to measure temperatures. Now, what’s left? Geez, look at those burn patterns. They look just like ignitable liquids. Yeah, and you saw how we started the fire without any ignitable liquids, didn’t you? Oh, I should be more careful about calling those patterns. Yes, you should.
And then—and that’s—even today it’s a challenge. People—I just had a well-trained, pretty experienced fire investigator call me, and he had pictures of this burn pattern on floor in a very seriously burned house with a fatality, and he said this looks like a pour pattern, and I said, yeah, I know it does. And then I sent him half a dozen pictures of fire tests that we had done over the years that looked just like pour patterns on the floor, and they weren’t. They were driven by flashover, and the way the hot gases move and the way the ventilation affects it and things like that. And he said, we had this pattern and it had to have been ignitable liquids, but the dog didn’t alert and the lab samples we took were negative. And I said well, that’s probably because there wasn’t any ignitable liquid there. That was the major deal over the years.
I started as a lab scientist responsible for analyzing the fire debris, and when I would turn back negatives to the investigator, they go, well, that can’t be negative. What do you mean it can’t be? Well, I took that. There was a burn pattern right there. It had to have been ignitable liquids. Well, there’s nothing there. Well, what’s the matter with you? What’s the matter with your equipment? There’s nothing wrong with me or my equipment. There’s just nothing there. And that’s when I started saying, why did you pick that spot? Well, I had this pattern. Oh, and is it—my original degree was in physics, and I said, you know, you have the heat transfer issues, and that’s what’s causing those patterns I suspect, didn’t have anything to do with an ignitable liquid.
ROD AMMON: Wow, I mean you know, one thing I always hear in your voice is passion, and I’m sitting here. I was going to ask you how you got into fire, and you went off flying, and I love that. But I would like to know, like you just said, your background was physics. How did you get into fire?
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: I got bored with physics in so many words. I was a physics major. I intended to be a scientist from about the age of 10 or something like that, and the science fair projects led to a physics program at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, and I was put into, as an undergraduate research assistant in high-energy physics, cutting-edge physics research, and I watched—I participated in this for about two years, and I thought this isn’t helping humanity at all. We’ve sort of half proven the existence of an exotic particle that not two-dozen people in the world give a fig whether there’s a particle like that or not.
There’s got to be a better way to use the science, and of course, typical child of the ‘60s, I said, well, what else can we do? So I started casting around, and I—just on a fluke, I took an introduction to criminal law course in the criminal justice program, and all the other students in the class were going to be cops and FBI agents and stuff like that, and they looked at me and they said, you’re a scientist. Yeah. Well, you need to stick around and listen to the guy that teaches the next class in this room because he’s a scientist. He’s a criminalist. Well, this was 1968. Nobody had ever heard the word criminalist in the normal world, and I said, what’s this all about? So I sat in and Professor Joe Nickel had just retired as the head of the Illinois State Crime Lab. He had been in the field since 1941 except for years in the navy during the war, and he had a degree in chemistry and a master’s degree in physics.
ROD AMMON: Wow.
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: So we linked up, and my world changed. I said, you mean I could use my science and I could solve crimes? I love Sherlock Holmes, and I thought wow, this is great. I was hooked. It was too late to change majors, which turned out to be a very great advantage because I—that program at Illinois was one of the toughest programs in the University, and you got physics. You got optics. You got—including the mathematics, which was what really scared me off because I did okay until partial differential equations, and I said no, we’re not going to make a life doing these calculations. And I got hooked on applying science to crime scenes and criminalistics and solving crimes, and I was done. So as soon as I graduated, I started looking for a job in criminalistics.
ROD AMMON: We’re glad there’s guys like you out there taking those classes, and I was going to ask you why you call yourself a criminalist and how that has affected you through your career. That’s different than a lot of the other people that I’ve seen either call themselves investigators or scientists. Why did you decide to go with criminalist, and how did it affect some of the casework that you did?
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: Well, the word actually was an invention and a creation from Hans Gross who wrote what’s considered to be the original textbook on scientific crime investigation in Germany in 1887, and it comes from the German of basically scientific techniques applied to criminal investigations, and it was common on the West Coast. It wasn’t so common in the Midwest where I grew up, but very rarely did people talk about it, but it turned out to be an advantage being a physics major because just at that time, the very late ‘60s, early ‘70s when I started, the instrumentation revolution was on, and there was funding from LEA and other programs to see what all these exotic techniques could do.
So when they started filtering in the laboratory, I’d say, well, I know about x-rays. I know about optics. I know about spectroscopy, and my lab manager looked at me and says, well, get in there and start working with those instruments because you’re one of the few that do understand it. That led to basically a specialty in trace evidence. I didn’t get any biology in college, so I’m glad I was able to stay away from the blood typing and other squishy things, and people say, gee, what’s trace evidence?
And we used to tell people it’s everything that doesn’t bleed, shoot, or get you high, and that covers a lot of ground including fire debris and explosion—explosives residues and hairs, fibers. I did shoe prints and tool marks, and I did eventually qualify in firearms and things like that, but I was basically the trace guy, and that’s where fire and explosion cases ended up and made the investigators and then going out to scenes and going, this doesn’t look quite the way we think it should. And that led to a career-long conviction that there is a better way, and by getting the science in here, getting the data, and that was where the link-up with these training classes that we’ve burned all kinds of stuff from garden sheds to schools and churches and all kinds of stuff and small spaces and big spaces and with all kinds of fuels, and we were able to show investigators what the timeframes were. There was a lot of mythology when I first started because there was—geez, in the late ‘60s, Carter was probably the only book out there on fire investigations, and most of the stuff in Carter was based on looking at stuff after the fact and saying, well, this must be what happened. No.
I just did a—kind of a history review of my career for the founders lecture for my criminalist association just last month, and I got to thinking about it. These people that—these youngsters that come along with these career plans and you go, I didn’t have any career plan. I never took a promotional exam. I was just there, and there was another opportunity, another offer that got me away from the administration, and I pretty well cheesed off at each place because I was an independent SOB back in the laboratory. They said, well, analyze it and figure out what happened and apply good science, and that’s what we expect of you, and we’re not going to pressure you as to finding an answer one way or another. Just apply good science. And sometimes the answers didn’t come out the way the investigators would have liked, and when they dared complain to the administration, the administrators all said no, he did the right science. That’s his—he’s got the expertise, so that’s the answer you’re going to have to live with.
ROD AMMON: That’s excellent to hear, and it’s—that independence is so important, especially with science. I’m glad to hear that, and I’m glad to hear you were an SOB. Sounds like it was a good plan.
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: Yeah, I probably drove three generations of lab chiefs to distraction.
ROD AMMON: That’s okay.
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: But, you know, we got good answers, and it’s kind of nice seeing justice done, and that—what’s interesting is I spent 29 years in law enforcement crime labs, and I had been criticized that I was a pro-prosecution advocate and I always testified for the prosecution. I pointed out that I worked for a forensic lab for law enforcement agencies, and if my answers were negative, there was no case so they wouldn’t be calling me to present evidence in a non-case. Obviously, a lot of my conclusions came out in favor of the defense, and the investigators had to live with that. And then of course as an independent, the last 18 years or so as an independent, I’ve done a lot of defense cases, and the good news is that a lot of them were—the police or fire original investigations were good, were sound, and I would tell my client—I would warn every client no matter who it was, before I accepted their case, they’re going to get my answer good, bad, or indifferent to your case.
And I’m pleased to report in all those years, I never had a public agency—police, fire, prosecutor, or public defender, or for that matter, defense attorney—ever hesitate. They go, that’s what I want. I want the answer. I want the correct answer, and we’ll deal with—if it’s bad news, it’s bad news, and we’ll deal with that, and that was my litmus test. There is a certain segment of my clients that didn’t want to hear that, and as a result, I didn’t get any repeat customers from that quadrant, and you go, hmm, that’s interesting. And I’ve ended up doing cases for major corporations. They’ve called me as—to look at another case even when I’ve found against them. When my conclusion went against their interest, they would call back and say yeah, I realize that, but the company wants you, so get your butt to wherever and look at this fire or explosion or whatever.
ROD AMMON: Nicest compliment there is.
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: That was good news. And so now I get—I’ve been trying to retire for the last year, but I get these requests on especially innocence project cases, and I was on the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Case Review Panel for two or three years, and you’d see these cases that were done in the ‘80s and ‘90s and even close to 2000, and they were just wrong. They reached the wrong conclusions, and so I was kind of obligated to put my oar in the water and say you know, that’s wrong. And some of them have been really egregious, and the amazing thing is how long it takes for the system to correct its errors, and they have people that are in prison for 20 and 25 years, and then you say, nope, it wasn’t arson. And they go oh, maybe we should re-try this. Boy, well, you can’t replace the 25 years, but at least you can get the record sorted.
ROD AMMON: Yeah, I mean wow.
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: So somebody asked me a few months ago about what are you favorite cases, and I said you know, it’s really kind of split now between some of these innocence project post-conviction appeals and putting the bad guys—the right bad guys away for the right reasons because I’ve dealt with some really awful people in the years, especially the bombers. The bombers are just the scariest people imaginable because you can run from most fires. You can’t run from a bomb, and the good news is that bombings—criminal bombings have dropped off a lot in the last—actually in the last 15 years or so. Since 9/11 there’s been a noticeable decrease in the number of criminal bombings.
ROD AMMON: That’s interesting.
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: Even the gangs and stuff have said, well, Molotovs will have to do. We’re not going to put any more pipe bombs in people’s mailboxes or through their front door or whatever. That’s not true in some other countries.
ROD AMMON: So when you think back—I was going to ask you about your first case, and well, I’ll let you pick. What was your first pick challenge, or do you want to talk about one of your most interesting cases that surprised you?
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: I was supposed to testify for the defense in a high-profile bombing case against the police department as the target in a big city. I was doing it for the public defender there, and for a variety of reasons, they were going to do their voir dire over the phone prior to me actually going to the city. And the DA calls and he says, I have your CB here in front of me, and I thought oh, here we go, 52 pages of questions. He said, well, you don’t seem to have had much in the way of formal training in the area of explosives or bombs, and I said, no, that’s true, not a lot of formal training. Well, how long have you been doing this in terms of bombs and explosives? And I thought—I said my first bomb case that I can remember was 1972. There was a long pause and I heard him mutter, that’s longer than I’ve been alive, and I said, and my turf included Berkeley in the ‘70s. We got a lot of practice, and that was actually a significant case because it was, as far as I know, the first identification of a liquid binary high explosive.
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: And it was a bit of a mystery to sort out, and I found the right guy who said oh yeah, organic amines and nitromethane. That’s what we use in the nuclear weapons. That’s the trigger, and you go, oh, how strong is it? And he said oh, 95% TNT strength by weight.
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: Luckily, these mutts never had a chance to set it off. They developed—the police found their bomb-making facility and their armory before they could take any action, so that was—but that was the start of—this explosive stuff is pretty neat, but 1970 or ’72, there was no—there were virtually no formal training for forensic scientists in explosives. In fact, I considered volunteering to go to Northern Ireland for a year to find out more because they were having lots of experience in the laboratories dealing with explosives, but that didn’t work out, and so I ended up with them as colleagues and learning a lot from them kind of secondhand.
ROD AMMON: So where do you think the profession is heading? You’ve had a long career, and you’ve seen it go from—I mean when I got involved working with you all, it was in the ’90s, and I’ve seen a whole lot change since then, but your picture is twice as long at least, and you must have a good insight into where you think it’s headed.
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: Yeah, I think—well, I think criminalistics in general is having issues now with the government stepping in and organizing these vast, complicated layers of committees and processes and limiting the kind of tests that we can do and stuff like that, and I think that’s wrong and largely driven by the defense bar. And I—it’s only partially a joke that the reason they got behind all these—pushing for all these reforms is because we were putting too many of their clients in jail over the years. There have been errors certainly in criminalistics, in laboratory methods and things like that because types of evidence, especially in the trace realm, had limitations that we weren’t aware of when we started testifying about how unique something was or what it indicated as far as a source and things like that.
But fire investigation has improved enormously as a profession in terms of its accuracy. Of course, the big first step was getting people to admit that there are undetermineds out there, and for years, the NFIRS system didn’t accept undetermineds. It was either arson or accident or—sorry—incendiary or accidental, and investigators were making calls because they had to fill in a box, but geez, if I call this an incendiary event or arson, then a whole bunch of other things are going to happen and the police are going to get involved, and so we just wrote it—they just wrote it off as accidental. And many of them knew that they couldn’t really defend that conclusion because they weren’t sure. They didn’t have the time. They didn’t have the knowledge base to make those calls, but today it has changed enormously. Certainly, Kirk’s kicked it off in the ’80s when it started being recognized as an authoritative source and I didn’t get a lot of grief from investigators about, well, you destroyed this indicator and you took this one away from us and what are you going to destroy on us now because you’re taking away all my tools? And I said, well, you just have to understand the limitations of those tools, and everybody wanted it simple.
Fire investigation has never been easy. It’s a very complicated process, chemically and physically. Our environments are very complicated and these things burn. They change and make different kinds of contributions to a fire, and everybody wanted this red flag system, a cookbook that if I see this, it means it was incendiary. If I see that, it means it was accidental. Well, you can’t do that. Fire is way too complicated, and so in the early ’80s, we had some textbooks out there that tried to establish this cookbook, and then I came along and said, no, we have to understand the science. Oh my God, no, we can’t. No, we can’t do science. I flunked science. I hated chemistry in high school. You go, I’m sorry. If you’re going to be a fire investigator and come to the right answer, you’re going to have to learn.
ROD AMMON: It’s interesting how scared we are of math and science.
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: And that—I ended up on the 921 committee for 10 fun-filled years or nine fun-filled years and realized that the people on the committee were trying to do the right thing and steer investigators towards the right answer, defensible answers, scientifically accurate and scientifically defensible. And we got in so much trouble in the first edition that came out in ’92 that NFPA called us in—basically called us on it and said we’ve had so many complaints about the language in 921. We said, what’s wrong with it? Well, you press as many of the statements about indicators as, it is a common misconception that, and they said we’ve had so many complaints from fire service investigators saying well, that’s what I believe and here you press us every discussion as to, it’s a common misconception that. And for years afterwards, if you wanted to break the tension in a meeting, you’d drop that line and all the old hands on the committee would laugh, and the newcomers would go, why? What’s that all about? We had to kind of soften the language, and that was the attitude of the original committee, and we want to keep people from making mistakes, and we want to show them the right way.
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: It’s a lot more complicated than the cookbook, and I was amazed when they said we’re going to use the s-word. We’re going to call it science. Oh my God, good luck, and so I mean it’s been 25 years of grief, and even IAAI said oh no, it’s not a scientific inquiry. It’s a technology, and you go, no, it’s not. It’s science, and they were finally forced to back up a bit on that claim, and now it’s fully endorsed.
Well, the good news is that yes, our determinations are a lot better. They—we saw it in the Texas State Fire Marshal Review Panel. We started looking at reports that their investigators had done, say, 2010, and then they revised all their training. They upped the requirements. Some of their old hands retired and said I can’t learn this new stuff, and the state fire marshal, Chris Connealy, said well, there’s the door. Thanks very much for your service, but if you’re not going to do it the right way, you’re not going to do it here, and so by the time we finished looking at some of these reports, current reports, we went, man, these are a whole world above what they were before. The seam processing was better. The documentation was better. The analyses were better, and yeah, there was a higher percentage of cases where they said we don’t know, but that’s the reality of science. We don’t know in some cases. I think in general, fire investigation is better, much better, than it was even 25 years ago.
ROD AMMON: I was laughing because I remember the cookbook. It was the spalling. I remember spalling and the crazing of grass I think were my two favorites.
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: Spalling and crazing and proof of high temperatures. If you melt aluminum and you melt copper and stuff like that, it was unusually high, and therefore, there had to have been accelerant and go, no. I can produce 1900-degree Fahrenheit rooms, fires in rooms any time I can push a fire towards flashover no matter what’s burning. And timeframes—if the fire went to full development in a room in less than 15 minutes, it had to have been accelerated. That was the red flag. It was too fast, so when I hear somebody say this, I say, well, how fast is a normal fire? Well, I don’t know. Well, how many normal fires have you actually watched from start to finish? Well, none. Well, then what’s your basis for saying it? So we drag people out and we set fire to a room with a match and a wad of paper onto a sofa or a modern bed, and it would be fully involved in three to five minutes, and they’re going, that’s really fast. Yeah, that’s the point. That’s how fast modern stuff burns and how energetically.
ROD AMMON: And then the cigarettes in the garbage can.
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: Oh yeah, cigarettes can light everything, and of course we have the mythology thanks to our government that we have fire-safe cigarettes, and I’ve had investigators say, well, I can ignore cigarettes now as an ignition source. No, you can’t. Well, FSC means fire safe. No, it stands for federal standard compliant. It has—and that test that it passes has nothing to do with how readily it will ignite real fuels. Oh, and luckily the Consumer Product Safety Commission came out with a beautifully done paper, research project a couple of years ago showing how FSC cigarettes had exactly the same propensity to start fires in real-world, cotton-based fabrics, as the unsafe cigarettes. And we now have furniture manufacturers trying to back off, trying to back away from the requirements for fire retardants in their furniture saying, well, we have fire-safe cigarettes now. We don’t have to protect the furnishings from cigarette ignition. And we now have a government that’s willing to back up that kind of rationale. Gee, it’s going to hurt your profit margin if you have to add a step. You have to add a layer of fabric or whatever you’re going to do to keep it from igniting, then we’ll abandon that requirement.
ROD AMMON: I sure hope not. I was going to ask you what worries you the most about what’s going on in fire investigation. I think I might have just heard more of the answers.
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: Well, you know, it’s an odd combination basically of worried about the political influence on standards and regulations and stuff like that, that we’ve worked really hard to improve and we do have a much safer fire environment in our homes and our factories and our cars and stuff like that than we did 20 years ago. But the other thing is, at the end of—the other end of the spectrum is the pressure that everything has to go by 921, and in fact, my own book.
I’ve abandoned Kirk’s because my co-author decided that it had—everything had to be in lockstep with 921, so he’s abandoned the glossary that I spent 25 years developing. I said, why are you doing that? Well, because some of it conflicts with 921, so I’m just going to use the 921 glossary. I said, there are errors in the 921 glossary. Well, people are being challenged because they’re reaching conclusions that aren’t supported by 921 or are offering opinions that aren’t supporting, and I said that’s wrong. There are reasons why; 921 is not the fount of all knowledge, and oh geez.
ROD AMMON: The challenges go on.
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: We’ve gained a lot, but we’ve got to be careful now to—we don’t forget the science, and the science—well, scientists have always been independent people challenging from the outside and—the churches and governments and stuff like that that control things weren’t real happy in many instances with scientific conclusions. When they’re offered an out, they can say, well, we’ll just ignore that. Everybody follows this rule. No.
ROD AMMON: But we’re real happy that we’ve got people like you. I can speak for all the folks that I know in the fire investigation field that I see at some of these tests and at live burns and all kinds of places there’s no more excitement than there is when somebody is around a fire or there’s science being involved whether it’s measurements of temperature, whatever is happening in their tests. The excitement is really there, and you’ve been part of making that happen.
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: I remember one test that we inadvertently created a lot more excitement than we planned. We were trying to recreate—I want to say it was National Geographic’s—one of their programs, and we were trying to recreate a spontaneous human combustion, an infamous one from the ’60s, and they had to substitute a different kind of box spring, and the fire engineer at the Bureau of Home Furnishings came to me and he says, be careful. He said those box springs can generate 800 kW all by themselves, and he said be really careful, and I said, okay, I’m monitoring it.
So I’m kneeling in the doorway of the test room, and I—the fire is going really good. We had a 200-pound pig carcass on the bed, and it was growing on the bed and—for about 17 minutes, and then because of the position of the door, I could see the box spring ignite, and I could—I thought—and it’s going to draft right against—the flames are going to come out the other side of that mattress, and I’m watching the dresser, and I said if the dresser ignites, it’s over. It’s going to go all the way, and I saw the flames hit the dresser, and the dresser ignited, and I turned to the cameraman and I said time to go, and I bailed out. I turned around to see what was happening, and the layer ignited right over my head, singed all my hair, and we set a new record that day. That facility was not to exceed 1.2 megawatts, and the engineer came out and he handed me the analytical report, and he said, congratulations. You’ve set a new record, 2.5 megawatts.
ROD AMMON: Oh wow.
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: He said it fried every single one of our air pollution filters. You owe us $1,200. It also set off the fire alarms in the building, and they evacuated the building, and of course, the fire crew that shows up knows me, and of course we had a hard line out. We had it knocked out within a few seconds already charged and everything, and it was just the bed that caught on fire. And the captain looked at me and looked at this burned-out room, and he said, this is your work, isn’t it, John? And I’m still holding the lighter. I go, yeah—Jesus. So at that point, they decided that they weren’t going to do any more tests for me, which is too bad because we learned a lot from the tests that we were able to do there over the years, but I made the local papers, the Sacramento Bee had an article about a local fire expert, things going wrong.
And of course—and I don’t think they ever led any kind of wrongful conclusions, but—or prosecutions, but the whole thing about spontaneous human combustion is one of the hardest myths to stamp out. We think we’ve finally convinced people about spalling and crazing of glass and floor patterns and stuff like that, but every time they have a burned body, they go, could it be spontaneous? So when I give a lecture on combustion of bodies, I said in case anybody has to leave early, there is no such thing as spontaneous human combustion. Yes, there are products like ketones, acetone and stuff like that produced in the body, and yes, those are flammable outside the body in sufficient quantities, but there is no process inside the body that’s going to ignite them or anything around them.
It’s always—it’s almost always an accident. It’s really hard to do intentionally as it turns out, but it’s almost always an accident, and if the trace evidence survives the fire and the suppression, those cases can be solved. Santa Ana had one, and the lady burned to death right inside her door, right inside her apartment door. Luckily, that was the extent of the fire, so the fire crew reached around the half-open door, squirted it once, and it went out, so there was no suppression, no tearing apart walls or anything, and you could see the trail of burned cloth and burned plastic from the food dish that she set on fire at the stove, and of course a normal reaction is, instead of turning around and throwing it in the sink, what did she do? She picked it up and headed for the only exit, the front door. She had a loose top. The flames—as she moved forward, the flames hit the loose top, and she—it ignited the top, looked down, and went—and that was it.
ROD AMMON: That’s amazing.
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: That ended her right there, and so she collapsed and burned just inside the front door, but it was because the trace evidence that they were able to recreate the path because the ignition source—the stove actually was still on, but in many cases, even if the victim hasn’t turned the stove off, very often the first-in fire crew turns it off, and so the poor investigator is going, well, how did this happen? There’s no ignition sources. Well, there was. It was in another room where it got turned off or displaced or knocked over or whatever, so those are always kind of interesting.
ROD AMMON: Wow. I could listen all day, and I’m sure people who are listening to this now are thinking the same thing. I—normally we have our podcasts stay at around a half hour, and I’m just sitting here having a blast listening to the stories, and I’m very grateful for you sharing it. I have one final question before we wrap it up, and that is so I’m a new fire investigator that just got minted, and I’m headed out there. What’s a piece of advice from Dr. DeHaan.
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: Document everything. Take lots of pictures, lots of notes before anything is disturbed, and then process the scene systematically and document as you go. That’s the single biggest thing is that you can always go back, and when you start asking, well, could this have happened, could that have happened, if you don’t have the documentation, you can’t test those hypotheses, and then you’re left to guess. That’s—you don’t want to guess in these kinds of things, and it’s actually one of the advantages of digital photography now. I’ve looked at cases that were done in the ’80s, and you’d call the investigator and say there’s only 24 pictures. Well, they only gave—they only allowed us to use one roll of film at a scene, and so it was 24 pictures, and then we were done and you can’t preserve a scene in 24 pictures. Well, now, yes, you can overdo it with too many pictures with a digital and forget to label it and forget to make a log of it so that five years later or when you’re going to go to court, you’re able to look at your log or your list of where was I standing when I took that picture, and what was I trying to preserve?
ROD AMMON: That’s got to be a big job working with photography and doing all the logging, just the organization.
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: Yeah, it is, and the—and people forget to do it, and because they say, well, I’ll remember that—maybe for a few hours or a day. They don’t realize that the next time they see those pictures might be in court five years later, and the—everybody is entitled to know, well, what does this picture show? Um, it’s not a good answer when you go, um or you guess. No, and so the technology is out there to make it happen. Keep the science in mind and don’t fall into the trap of quick and dirty answers, single indicators and stuff like that. Always be willing to say, well, what about, and that’s why I always got in trouble as a scientist, whether it was an ordinary crime scene or a fire or explosion, and I’d look around especially at the investigators who had been there for a couple of days and they knew—they thought they knew what was going on. I said, well, what about that? Well, what about it? I said, well, is that a possible? Well, we don’t know. I’m notorious for asking about the dog.
A fatal fire scene that I did—that I looked at for a colleague in the Bay area, and the lady died at her dining room table literally and caught fire, dropped a cigarette in the clothes she was wearing and stuff like that, and I said, what happened to the dog? What dog? And I said, well, there was a dog in the house. Did anybody find it? Was it alive? Was it dead? Was it sick? Was it poisoned? Well, you and your d**n dogs. He said, how do you know there’s a dog? And I said, there’s a bag of dog food and a water dish by the back door. You and your d**n dogs.
ROD AMMON: So did they find the dog?
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: Because that—in fatal fires, there is another living, breathing object system that’s exposed to the same threats, and I’ve had dogs kicked and shot and stabbed and poisoned as well as dying from the fire, and it’s important. I had one murder case in—back east, and the doer actually claimed that this stranger came in through the back window. All the doors were double-bolted and locked from the inside and stuff like that, so she had actually staged a cut screen in a back window, and she said, well, the bad guy came in through that back window, and he poured gasoline through the living room, and I came down just as he was leaving.
And I realized that there was a big dog crate in the next room literally five feet away from where this guy had to be standing, and they found the dog dead of smoke inhalation in that crate. It was a Weimaraner, and I said, well, didn’t the dog bark? No, nobody heard a dog. I said, well, I realize it sounds like a line from Sherlock Holmes, but there’s something unusual about the dog in the nighttime. Well, it didn’t make any noise. That’s what’s unusual. So that’s the kind of weird, off-side stuff that scientists think about, and an investigator looking at the burn patterns doesn’t want to be bothered with what happened to the dog, but that may be key.
ROD AMMON: Maybe. Thanks a lot for your time today.
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: You bet you, Rod, my pleasure. Good luck with this program.
ROD AMMON: It’s a piece of cake, John. I mean really. All we do is turn it on now, let you talk, and edit out the couple of times where I stammered, and this is going to be a great podcast.
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: Okay, man. Call any time.
ROD AMMON: Appreciate it, John. Be well.
DR. JOHN DEHAAN: You bet you, thanks, bye.
ROD AMMON: Bye-bye. And that’s it for this podcast from CFITrainer.Net. For the International Association of Arson Investigators, I’m Rod Ammon. We very much appreciate John DeHaan’s time with us today and hope all of you enjoy the beginning of this summer and take care of yourselves and be safe out there where the equipment keeps your lungs and your body safe as well.
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.
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.