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: Hello and welcome to this podcast at the beginning of September 2017. For the International Association of Arson Investigators and CFITrainer.Net, I’m Rod Ammon. Some really good news I think I’ll start off the podcast with today. We just found out that the International Association of Arson Investigators was awarded a new AFG grant, the Assistance to Firefighters Grant program from FEMA, which is the grants that we are funded by at CFITrainer.net that’s the Fire Prevention and Safety Grants, again, from AFG with FEMA, so thanks big time to the folks who spent the time reading the grants and scoring them and making a decision to once again fund CFITrainer for the International Association of Arson Investigators and for all of you. And another important group of folks to be thankful for are the ones who donate their time, and this is a very, very important thing I think that is often forgotten, the experts that are around the International Association of Arson Investigators, all of the different people that are tied to the network who act as content experts, subject matter experts for the modules that we do.
Well, with that, today we’ve got a special guest. About a couple weeks ago, I got a phone call or a text – I forget what it was – from John Jones who was the gentleman who was our original boss, project manager for the International Association of Arson Investigators when CFITrainer.net started, and he had a whole lot to do with making it the way that it is, so thanks to John for that. But when he reached out to me, he told me about a book called “American Fire” and I went over, read it on the iPad, and it was awesome and made a couple of – sent out a couple of emails and was lucky enough to get somebody to join us today, Monica Hesse, who is the writer of “American Fire”. It’s an awesome read and very relevant to all of you who listen to CFITrainer.Net, to our podcast. So with us today, Monica Hesse, thanks for being here.
MONICA HESSE: Oh thank you so much for having me.
ROD AMMON: It’s awesome that you’re here and I really enjoyed the book. So tell us a little bit about your background.
MONICA HESSE: So my day job, I’m a journalist for the Washington Post. I’m actually sitting in a conference room here at the Post talking to you today, and I’ve been there for about 10 years. And in my off time, I also write books. I’ve written three novels, and this book that I’m here to talk with you about today, which came from a Washington Post story about a series of arsons in rural Virginia.
ROD AMMON: Well, we appreciate the time that you’re getting to spend with us today. So how did you make the decision to dig into this book?
MONICA HESSE: So when you’re a feature writer like I am, your life is like a series of panic and then excitement, and the panic comes when you finish a story and you don’t know what’s coming next. It’s the worst place a journalist can be, but a couple of years ago, I was sent down to cover this really strange trial, and what had happened is that in a rural county in Virginia over the course of five months, 86 buildings were burned down by arson, and when they caught the culprit, it was a man and a woman. They were doing it together. So I just kind of became enamored with this story and went down to cover it for the Post and thought it would take a couple of days and then just couldn’t drop it. Three years later, it’s a book.
ROD AMMON: It’s an awesome book. You painted an incredible picture of the area, so why don’t you tell us a little bit about the area and what it was like.
MONICA HESSE: So for the people – for the listeners who are not familiar with Accomack County, it’s a county on the eastern shore in Virginia, which means it’s not connected to the mainland at all. It’s the tip of a peninsula that’s tacked on to the bottom of Maryland, so it’s pretty isolated from the rest of the state. It’s really rural. It’s the kind of town where you can drive for 40 miles and go through only one stoplight. It’s dark. There are gravel roads, and in the daytime, it’s beautiful, but in the night, it is really desolate for lack of a better term. It’s really dark and kind of scary. And the history of this town is that Accomack County 100 years ago was the richest rural county in all of America, and then over the course of the past 100 years, the county has changed as American fortunes have changed, as farming has become less localized and shifted, as railroads have disappeared. And so what you are left with is this beautiful, isolated peninsula that used to be really wealthy but is now emptied of people and has hundreds and hundreds of abandoned buildings, which in 2012 started burning down.
ROD AMMON: I’ve talked to a lot of different folks that get involved in fire investigation, and I’m one of them, too, that was fascinated when I started to learn about this field. Tell us about the learning process and what your favorite part about the research was.
MONICA HESSE: So what I found really interesting, and to fire investigators listening, they’ll think that this is so dumb, but it’s something that average people just don’t think about very much, which is how difficult it is to investigate an arson because the nature of a crime like a murder is that there are – there’s blood spatter. There might be bullet casings. There might be fingerprints. And the nature of an investigation of a fire is that so much of the evidence burns away, so I gained such a deep appreciation for things like foot pattern analysis or V patterns or things like that that I think that non-investigators just never think about.
I spent several days with a man named Bobby Bailey who is an investigator at the Virginia Fire Marshal Academy, and I thought that I would interview him for an hour, and then six hours later, he’s taking me into the burn trailer and he’s explaining how wood siding burns differently than aluminum siding. And he’s explaining how you have to pay attention to the wind direction and how, if there were windows open and how high the soot level is. And so getting to follow along with him and getting in to sit in on some classes that he was teaching to inspire – to aspiring investigators was completely fascinating. I was ready to be enrolled in the class by the end of my days with him.
ROD AMMON: It’s great when you get somebody like that who’s as passionate about teaching as they are in their job. And were there other folks – I hadn’t talked to you about this, but there were some other folks probably that you worked with in the fire industry or fire investigation industry.
MONICA HESSE: Yeah, I interviewed the two main investigators who were working on these fires, and they were both based in Accomack County, a man named Rob Barnes and a man named Glenn Neal, and then I also spent a lot of time with the firemen who were being called out every night, sometimes two or three times a night, to put out the fires. And of course, that was a really interesting dynamic because you have the firemen whose job is to get the fires out as quickly as possible, and that’s what they’re trained to do. They want to get up and get out the fires. And then you have the investigators who are trying to think about preserving evidence and what needs to be kept intact and not wanting a bunch of firemen to come and tramp all over a crime scene. So that was really interesting to learn about the dynamics between those groups of people and how they were having to work together because obviously investigating a fire when it’s the scene of an arson is different than when someone’s house is burning down because they accidentally tipped over a candle.
ROD AMMON: You mentioned in the book Matt and the camera.
MONICA HESSE: Yeah.
ROD AMMON: Do you want to talk about that a little bit?
MONICA HESSE: Yeah, so one of my favorite characters is this man named Matt Hart who is a – he works in real estate down in Accomack, and he’s just super involved in the community. He – since I – the book has come out, he’s become a city councilman. He really – he volunteers a lot. He wants to do well, so he and some buddies started up this group that they called the Eastern Shore Arson Hunters, and they thought they were going to catch the arsonists. And one of my favorite stories that he told me is that he and these friends got the idea that they were going to put up a camera at an abandoned house that one of them knew the owner of. They were going to put up this camera and see if they could catch the arsonist if he came to target the house, but once they got there, they put up their camera. They turned around, and they realized that there was already a camera there, that this camera had been put up by law enforcement having the same idea that they did, and now the police camera – what they had caught was Matt and all of his friends tramping around the woods, looking like arsonists. So I kind of – I loved that story because it just kind of shows the level of desperation and panic that the citizens were reaching and how they’re trying to be helpful, and instead they just end up looking like crazy arsonists tramping around the woods.
ROD AMMON: I hope I didn’t do too much of a spoiler. The book is full of those kinds of details, and I just loved it. I appreciate you sharing it. So you talked about geographic profiling. What did you learn about?
MONICA HESSE: You know, so what I learned is that I was kind of familiar with geographic profiling in a way I hadn’t realized. I had – like a lot of folks, I’ve seen shows like CSI or like Numbers, but you never know how much of that is real and how much of that is just TV magic that probably drives real investigators crazy because it doesn’t work like that in the real world and it can’t work like that in the real world. But I talked to a geographic profiler, Isaac Van Patten, who explained that no, actually, some of the techniques that I found most interesting are real and can be really used. So because this was an incident where there were so many, many fires, it was an area that’s rich for geographic profiling, which for lay people who might be listening and not know about this, if you have a bunch of crimes that have been committed and you can plot them out on a map, you can use a geographic algorithm to come up – or a mathematical algorithm to come up with a way to figure out where the criminal might live or where he might work. But basically the theory is that people have patterns even if they’re not aware of them, and an arsonist who believes that he is setting buildings on fire at random or a burglar who believes that he is burgling houses at random isn’t really doing things in a random way. They’re doing things in a way that can trace back to where they live, so learning about that was fascinating because, as I said, when I would hear about something like that happening on a show like Numbers, I would think, oh, this is just good TV writing, but it just goes to show you that you can’t make up more interesting things than are actually happening in investigations.
ROD AMMON: So I was thinking about, after we spoke the first time, about your exposure to the court system, and there are a lot of folks in the fire investigation field that may never even get into court. So I thought it might be interesting for you to talk about what you learned in the court system as you watched this case go on.
MONICA HESSE: You know what was really fascinating to me, by the time the trials happened, I had been following this story so closely for a long time that there wasn’t a lot that happened in the courtroom that was surprising, but what was surprising is how much – how little information the jurors had. Like when I was thinking about if I was a juror, just listening to the information that was presented, how would I vote? What would I think was happening? And it would have been a real struggle, which just goes to show if you are an investigator who’s been asked to testify or a witness who’s been asked to testify, the entire breadth of your knowledge will barely be touched on. You’ll have to consolidate months’ worth of what you know about a case or about a person into a 45-minute testimony, which just, knowing as much as I did about the case by the end, seemed crazy and gave me such an appreciation for the people who have to do it.
ROD AMMON: It’s a – there’s a lot of learning that investigators and lawyers and everybody in this industry does to make testimony effective, so I’m sure they’ll appreciate your insight coming in from the angle that you did. You have a real hopeful message about rural America, and I share it and I liked what you wrote. Could you talk about your insight there?
MONICA HESSE: Yeah, so we talk a lot about rural America these days and sort of what’s happening in rural places and if rural places are being left behind in the modern world, and I think we tend to look at places like Accomack in one of two ways. We either sort of glorify them, like that’s the only real America that’s left, or we denigrate them and sort of assume that everyone there rides a tractor to school, which honestly where I’m from, a few people did ride tractors to school. But what I ended up finding in Accomack was just such a strong sense of community, and this was a terrible series of events to happen in the town, but it brought out the best in almost everyone, which you got to see because the firemen would – the firemen never had to pay for their dinners because if people saw the firemen out eating, they would offer to pick up the check, or people would bring over casseroles or brownies or Rice Krispie treats to the fire houses.
And you saw that happening in the sheriff’s office, too. You saw neighbors volunteering to watch each other’s houses or really pulling together. So in that way, it was a real testament to the intimacy and the neighborliness that exists in a small rural place like that, and I was – I felt really lucky to get to watch that and get to try to write about it.
ROD AMMON: It’s a beautiful thing to see that happen, and it’s great to hear you talk about it. It sounded to me like you were very, very well accepted by the fire – people in the fire service and law enforcement and I’m guessing – I think you talked about some federal agents as well that you had worked with. You want to tell us a little bit about your experience with them and something you learned?
MONICA HESSE: Yeah, I mean so by the time I started writing this story, a lot of people in Accomack were really wary of me coming in. The fires had happened more than a year ago at that point, and they were exhausted. They were exhausted of reporters coming in and talking about it. They didn’t know me. They were worried that this was going to make their town look bad, and I don’t blame them at all for that, and it would have been completely within their rights to just say who are you to be trying to tell this story? Leave us alone. And instead what happened is they were so – they became so welcoming to me.
The fire department that I was spending time with let me sleep overnight in the fire house and gave me a pager so that I could hear when they were going out on calls. People invited me to potlucks, to sit with them at football games, to go to church with them, and anything that I got right in this book is because the people of Accomack knew that I couldn’t tell their story without them and without them opening their homes and their notebooks and going back over old diary entries or old Facebook posts. I wouldn’t have been able to do it, so it really was their story that I was lucky enough to get to write.
ROD AMMON: Well, I can imagine them having a lot of respect for you. After just the couple times that we’ve spoken, I find your desire to do the job the way you do just – I don’t want to say refreshing. It’s beautiful. You’ve got a real passion.
MONICA HESSE: Oh that means a lot, thank you.
ROD AMMON: And it comes through in your writing. I just – there are things that I read and I go, that’s a nice story, and then there are things that I read where I feel like, wow, this person loved this, and that came through in your writing.
MONICA HESSE: Well, it’s an incredible place. It’s an incredible town full of people, and in my job, usually I’m lucky enough to get to realize that almost every place has something incredible about it if you would just spend enough time, but this place was really – I was really glad to get to know the folks there.
ROD AMMON: You went back, didn’t you?
MONICA HESSE: I did. I have been back – so while I was working on the book, I rented a house down there so that I could be down there for an extended period of time, and then I would drive back for shorter trips, three or four days or an afternoon to do an interview. Just a couple of weeks ago, I went on a vacation and was trying to figure out where to go, and I found myself back on the eastern shore again, going to some other coastal towns and spending time and hanging out because it’s – like I said, it really is just a lovely place.
ROD AMMON: I thought that was really cool. I just wanted to bring it up again and remind the people out there how welcome you made – how welcome they made you feel. So before we wrap up, I was wondering if there’s anything that you would like to share, as a journalist and as a writer, with the fire investigation community.
MONICA HESSE: Gosh, I mean the biggest thing that I’d like to share with the fire investigation community is that journalists are aware that with every story we do, we’re often starting cold and we’re trying to tell the story of people who know a lot more than us about the topics that we’re writing about. So some of my favorite emails that I’ve gotten since writing this book have been from fire investigators and arson investigators who have given me feedback and who have said I really liked that you brought up this or it reminded me of this other case. Maybe you should look at this other case.
And so them being willing to kind of help me see what I got right, what I could have done better and help me keep learning, those – I love those emails. I forward them to my editor and my agent, and we all read them and talk about them, so I guess just the message to the fire investigators, if you do read this book, journalists love to hear from subjects in general, and I’d love to hear from you in particular. My email address is on my website, which is monicahesse.com, and look me up and I’d love to have a conversation with you about your work and what you do.
ROD AMMON: We’re very grateful time. It’s a beautiful book, and again, the book is “American Fire” and we’ve been speaking to Monica Hesse. Thanks again for your time, Monica.
MONICA HESSE: Thank you so much.
ROD AMMON: And that wraps up this podcast for the month of September this year of 2017. Our thoughts go out to all of those dealing with the floods and the fires across our country, both the responders and the public that are dealing with incredibly trying times. For the International Association of Arson Investigators and CFITrainer.Net, I’m Rod Ammon. Be 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.
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.