ACCIDENT AND FIRE INVESTIGATION

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Forty-one thousand, four hundred seventy-one people died in motor vehicle crashes in 1998. Although this is a 7 percent decrease from 1975 (the year authorities began collecting these figures), it is still an excessively high number. The 41,471 deaths occurred in 37,081 crashes involving 56,865 motor vehicles. Forty percent of the car occupant deaths occurred in single-vehicle crashes; 60 percent in multiple-vehicle crashes.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among Americans one to thirty-four years old.

Since the mid-1970s, passenger vehicle occupant deaths have represented a growing proportion of motor vehicle deaths, while deaths in all other categories have declined. Deaths in pickups and utility vehicles have more than doubled since 1975.



Speed, the kinds of vehicles involved ,the roads on which they travel, and the use of alcohol or drugs all contribute to the death toll. So do insects, such as a bee or wasp that is trapped in a car.

Progress has been made in the past two decades, and the number of fatalities related to high blood alcohol concentrations has declined. Still, alcohol-impaired driving remains a major problem.

About one-third of all motor vehicle deaths involve vehicles leaving the road and hitting trees or utility poles. Frequently, alcohol is a contributing factor in these crashes.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the total societal cost of crashes exceeds $150 billion annually. Criminally set fires also cost big bucks-about $2 billion in property damage annually.

Although there are many types of fires, anything from a trash basket fire to a devastating forest fire, they all fall into just two categories: accidental or criminal.

An accident happens when someone falls asleep smoking a cigarette, or oily rags left in a comer suddenly ignite. Criminal fires are fires that were set on purpose. This is called arson and is punishable by law. Fires caused by bombs, understandably, also fall under the category of criminal fires.

Of the two million fires reported each year, one in every four is estimated to be arson or arson-related. Arson is the leading cause (29 percent) of nonresidential fires and the third-highest cause (13 percent) of residential fires.

Solving arson crimes also can help shed light on other crimes because many arson fires are set to cover up crimes. In some cities 20 to 25 percent of arson cases are linked to drug activity, according to a preliminary study by the U.S. Department of Justice.

There are several different motives for arson: spite, revenge, anger, and fraud. The most common kind of arson fraud is when someone's business is going bad and they decide to "sell it back to the insurance company." They hire someone to bum it or bum it themselves, and then try to collect on their insurance.

THE ROLE OF INVESTIGATORS

When a traffic accident is believed to be the result of criminal negligence-for example, caused by a drunk driver-or when a fire's origin is of a suspicious nature, professional investigators are called in.

While the police and the office of prosecuting attorneys might have their own traffic accident investigators, criminal defendants also can hire independent investigators to help prove innocence. All traffic investigators work with the goal of uncovering the truth. How did the accident happen?

Traffic investigators examine the existing scene or study photographs and videotapes of the scene. If called in much after the fact, they try to re-create the scene, and this area of investigation is called accident reconstruction.

They research and study lighting conditions at the time of the accident, the weather, visibility, and any other factors that might have been at play.

A forensic entomologist might be called in as well to examine the fragmented remains of insects that have impacted and lodged on the front fascia, windshield, and radiator of automobiles. Analysis of such remains can yield evidence to the probable path of an automobile through particular areas when pinpointing the location and areas of travel.

Fire investigators check into both accidental and criminal fires. The engine company first goes out and handles the firefighting. Once the fire has been put out, the lieutenant on the scene will try to determine how the fire started. If the loss appears to be more than $5,000 or so, or there is a suspicion that the fire wasn't accidental, the fire investigator comes in to do a more in-depth check.

The fire investigator would prefer to be at the scene when the fire is still burning, if possible. A fire in progress can give a lot of information. The color of the flame or the smoke can often reveal what caused the fire. How the fire reacts to water also gives clues. If the fire doesn't go right out when soaked, if it keeps coming back, then there's a good chance fuel was used.

Fire investigators also look at what part of the building is burning to try to ascertain where the fire started. After the fire has been extinguished, burn patterns in wood or carpeting also reveal clues.

They also look at wiring, fuse boxes, and circuit breaker boxes. They interview the firefighters who arrived first on the scene and ask what they saw. Were the doors unlocked? Was anyone running away? Was there broken glass lying inside or was it blown outside by the fire?

Only about 4 percent of arsonists ever get caught and convicted. But often, an arsonist will stay near the fire to watch the firefighters at work.

Some fire departments use "fire dogs"-accelerant detection canines-to sniff out gasoline or other accelerants at a fire scene. They are also taken through the crowd to uncover the arsonist, who might still have the smell of gasoline on his or her clothes.

Both accident and arson investigators often must go to court and testify. Their expert opinions are highly regarded and can be the factor that determines innocence or guilt.

TRAINING FOR INVESTIGATORS

Courses for accident investigation and reconstruction are offered at community colleges, traffic safety institutes, and four-year colleges and universities that offer bachelor's degrees in the subject. The programs can come under a variety of names or departments: traffic safety, transportation, transportation engineering, accident investigation, and so on. A program offered by Northwestern University's Center for Public Safety is provided below.

Most fire and arson investigators first go through regular firefighter training and put in their time as a firefighter. Once they are approved by their department to become an investigator, the training is an ongoing process. They attend special classes at colleges and fire academies and also go through internships with seasoned investigators. They study fire behavior, chemistry, court procedures, and how to handle evidence.

Not all fire investigators work for fire departments, though. Some, with the appropriate training and experience, find work with insurance companies or private investigation firms.

Sample Program

Northwestern University Center for Public Safety 405 Church Street Evanston, IL 60204 www.northwestern.edu/nucps/index.htm

The Center for Public Safety was established at Northwestern University as the Traffic Institute in 1936. The center is a national nonprofit organization that serves public agencies responsible for law enforcement, criminal justice, public safety, traffic management, and highway transportation systems. Local, county, state, and federal government agencies, as well as agencies from foreign countries, are served through programs of specialized training, continuing education, research and development, publications, and direct assistance.

The center maintains six divisions:

Accident Investigation

Transportation Engineering

Management Training Division

Police Training Division

Research and Development

School of Police Staff and Command (SPSC)

The Accident Investigation division offers a comprehensive curriculum. In addition to providing consulting services and expert-witness testimony, the division also acts as a clearinghouse in distributing accident investigation and reconstruction information to police agencies, prosecutors, and others in the public and private sectors.

SAMPLE COURSE DESCRIPTIONS

Accident Investigation for the Industry: This course is involved with gathering accident information from people, roads, vehicles; measuring at an accident scene; photography for accident investigation; speed estimating; accident reconstruction methodology; and real-life case study review (five-day course only).

Traffic Accident Reconstruction 1 and 2: Participants must possess skills normally learned during on-scene and technical accident investigation training (Accident Investigation 1 and 2) and improved with experience. These skills include the ability to prepare after-accident situation maps and classify and interpret vehicle damage; properly interpret marks on the road and be proficient in algebra.

These courses provide the training necessary to reconstruct accidents through lectures and course material. The courses also provide the required experience through real-world case studies that the students must analyze.

Students successfully completing the two Traffic Accident Reconstruction courses will have met the minimum training requirements recommended by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for police reconstructionists. Course content covers vehicle dynamics, basic equations of motion, Newton's law of motion, weight shift in slowing, resultant drag factor, sum of moments and forces, computation of the location of the center of gravity, heavy truck accident reconstruction, braking capabilities, speed estimates, roll-over problems, collinear and oblique collisions, kinetic energy, vehicle collapse and direction of thrust, angle of collision and maximum engagement, marks on the road, driver strategy and tactics, case presentation, testimony, report writing, and more.

Other courses include Accident Investigation I and II, Accident Investigation Photography and Vehicle Dynamics, and various others. Visit www.northwestern.edu/nucps/index.htm for the full listing and information on its other divisions.

SALARIES

Accident investigators employed by police departments or other government agencies would be paid on the same scale as other personnel. The salary would vary depending on the region of the country and the agency's budget. Beginning investigators would start at between $25,000 and $35,000 and would move up with more experience.

Accident investigators and reconstructionists working privately most often charge by the hour-anywhere from $75 to $150 per hour.

Minimum annual earnings of firefighters are about $31,170 nationwide. Firefighting and prevention supervisors average about $44,830. Minimum annual earnings of fire inspection occupations run about $40,040.

Firefighters who average more than a certain number of hours a week are required to be paid overtime. The hour threshold is determined by the department during the firefighter's work period, which ranges from seven to twenty-eight days. Firefighters often earn overtime for working extra shifts to maintain minimum staffing levels or for special emergencies.

Fire and arson investigators employed by insurance companies are generally paid slightly higher than those working for fire departments.

SAMPLE JOBS

As with other sample jobs listed throughout this book, these jobs are meant to be viewed as samples only, and as such hiring bodies and contact information are not provided. When you are ready to look for employment, an Internet search should provide you with numerous available positions.

Forensic Chemist I

A state police crime lab in New England is seeking applicants for the position of Forensic Chemist I. Qualifications include a bachelor's degree in forensic science, forensic chemistry, or criminalistics; or a bachelor's degree in a related field such as chemistry, biochemistry, chemical engineering, biological chemical technology, and one year of experience in forensic science laboratory work.

Preference will be given to applicants with one year forensic laboratory experience in Fire Debris Analysis/Trace Evidence Analysis. Directly related experience may be substituted for education on a year to year basis.

Responsibilities include the examination and analysis of physical evidence through the use of chemical, physical, serological, and instrumental techniques; detecting, identifying, and comparing accelerants, accelerant residues, paint, polymers, fibers, hair, and glass; detecting and identifying blood, body fluids, and gunshot residues; and testifying as an expert witness in courts of law. Salary: $28,246-$38,688.

Police and Fire Criminalist III

Performs advanced analyses in connection with the identification and comparison of objects and materials in a crime laboratory, and performs related administrative and supervisory assignments. May train Criminalists I and II in advanced casework and legal aspects of evidence evaluation and may execute administrative duties over one or more laboratory sections as assigned.

Require three years of experience at a journey level in a criminalistic laboratory and a bachelor's degree in chemistry, criminalistics, or a related field. Require knowledge of principles, methods, materials, equipment, and current techniques of criminalistics. Also requires general competency in at least ten (10) major criminalistic areas OR a master level of competency in one major criminalistic area. The 12 criminalistic areas are: 1) analytical chemistry; 2) drug identification; 3) blood alcohol; 4) forensic blood testing; 5) hair and fiber identification; 6) arson investigation; 7) polarized microscopy; 8) firearms and tool marks identification; 9) toxicology; 10) general comparative analysis; 11) technical macrophotography and photomicrography; and 12) X-ray techniques.

Other combinations of experience and education that meet the minimum requirements may be substituted. Salary: $53,976-$76,544.

FIRSTHAND ACCOUNTS

Jack Murray, Accident Investigator

Jack Murray is an accident investigator and works in traffic accident reconstruction. He has a bachelor's degree from the University of Hart-ford in Connecticut and an M.B.A. from the University of Connecticut in Storrs. He's also attended more than thirty-five specialized investigative seminars throughout the United States in accident investigation and reconstruction, including accident reconstruction (Texas A&M University) and accident photography and DWI/vehicular homicide (both at the Traffic Institute of Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois).

Jack was named one of the top five investigators in America by PI Magazine in 1998, and one of the top twenty-five investigators of the century by the National Association of Investigative Specialists in 1999.

He is the author of five books on the subject and has been doing investigative work in this field since 1976 and accident reconstruction work since 1984. He started specializing in criminal defense of vehicular crime in 1989.

Jack is currently president of the North Texas Private Investigators Association.

GETTING STARTED

"I went to work on Wall Street after getting my M.B.A. Though I did not really enjoy the work, I made a very substantial amount of money. But a series of heart attacks at twenty-eight years of age made me realize there were more important things in life than financial rewards.

"I had worked as an insurance fire/arson investigator while going to college and decided that the investigative field might be of interest. Originally, I worked in criminal defense, but I became very interested in accident investigation where you apply the laws of physics and mathematics to motor vehicle accidents to determine the causation and effect of vehicle dynamics.

"With already having a heavy background in criminal defense work, it was a natural progression to put the two together and work on defense of vehicular crimes, such as manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, and so on. The more involved I became in this field, the more I realized that continuing education was an absolute must, to stay abreast of the computer and scientific applications used in the field.

"At first I worked for an investigator from the Dallas County District Attorney's office, but after a few years he moved to California and I inherited his clients. In 19761 obtained my own license as a private investigator from the Texas Commission on Private Security.

"Almost out of necessity I began learning the techniques of forensic photography. So many times our cases were won or lost on photographs that were taken, usually by someone else, at the scene of a crime.

"I work both civil and criminal cases and the basic applications are the same in both situations. But my job is to thoroughly investigate the circumstances and causation leading up to an accident and determine if in fact there was any criminal action or whether it is just a civil situation. This is a very challenging position to be in because I seldom get a case until well after it has occurred, sometimes as much as eighteen months later, and I must work with photos, measurements, and statements taken by someone else, usually a police agency. And they are the folks you are working against."

UPSIDES AND DOWNSIDES

"Sometimes it is very frustrating because of the vast resources of the state as compared to what the average defendant has at his or her disposal. Most times people only get as much justice as they can afford. Sometimes your clients are less than the pillars of the community, but your obligation is to give them as good a defense as the cream of society gets.

"My job requires substantial interfacing with law enforcement personnel, and this can be very difficult at times. Sometimes you find yourself dealing with a Kojak, and other times it's Barney Fife.

"Unfortunately, there are times when after doing the investigation or reconstruction you just have to tell some clients you can't help them. The facts of the case are not in their favor. Clients do not like this, especially when they have paid a lot of money for your services.

'There is, however, a great deal of satisfaction when you are able to keep a person innocent of a crime from going to jail. I am extremely fortunate that because I enjoy a high profile in my chosen field, I get to work on some very big cases, but it took a long time to build this reputation and to develop the skills that go with it.

"One thing this job isn't is boring; every case has some slightly different twist to it. Every client is a separate individual with different characteristics. Every attorney is different: some are budding Clarence Darrows, others are Bugs Bunny, and whether you like it or not, the attorney usually calls the shots as to how a case is ultimately presented to a jury. He or she may or may not know how to use the information you've provided, and it is your job to tactfully explain it."

SAMPLE CASES

"In a case we had, our client left a Christmas party and made a turn the wrong way onto a one-way street. He collided head-on with another vehicle, killing the other driver. After a blood test, it was determined that our client was over the legal limit and he was charged with DWI manslaughter.

"The state's position was, 'Hey, we got a drunk and we got a dead body, so what's the question?'

"We were able to prove that drunk, sober, or whatever, the traffic signs were so confusing and so badly placed, that anybody could have made that turn and had the same accident. The result was our client was given five years probation instead of fifteen years in the penitentiary.

"In another case our client hit a parked car on the side of the road in a rainstorm, killing the driver who was sitting in the parked car.

"Our client was charged with criminally negligent homicide. Using a videotape we produced under similar conditions and still photos the police took of the deceased's vehicle, we were able to prove that the car's parking lights were not on at the time of the accident, and the overhead lighting was such, that the time it took for our driver to recognize there was a vehicle parked there, and either swerve or stop, was insufficient. This time we received a verdict of not guilty."

"While you won't gain instant recognition in the field, you can make a very good living after a relatively short time, if you put the effort into obtaining the training and experience it takes. Because of the need to acquire experience, investigators start at relatively low wages. While certainly not minimum wages, they are comparatively low to those experienced folks make.

"A qualified reconstructionist usually charges somewhere between $100 and $150 per hour. An experienced accident investigator usually earns somewhere between $75 and $100 dollars per hour.

"Some weeks you might work seventy hours on a case and next week only five, so cash flow is sometimes very irregular, although most experienced investigators and/or reconstructionists receive a substantial retainer up front."

ADVICE FROM JACK MURRAY

"If you are interested in this kind of work, talk to your local police department and ask if you can ride along with one of their accident investigators a few times and get a feel for what they deal with in the field.

"Also, find out who your local private sector experts are, and tag along on some field work with them to see what the mechanics involve. Find your local investigative associations-every state has at least one-and go to some of their meetings and find out which members do this kind of work. Hang around and listen. Ask questions.

"For formal education, you might consider a major in criminal justice or math or physics or engineering, depending on your own aptitudes and interests. There are a very large number of community colleges in the United States that have two-year programs in criminal justice. If you add a few extra courses in math or physics, you'll be in a position to get a good offer at graduation.

'The job requires a lot of testifying under oath in depositions and trials. Recent Supreme Court decisions (1999) have set whole new guidelines for determining who can qualify as an expert in various matters before the court. This is done separately for each and every case in which you are involved. Just because you are qualified as an expert in trial A does not mean that you will automatically be qualified in case B. A good background in mathematics, physics, or engineering is a pretty basic requirement for this type of career."

Robert Lemons, Fire Investigator

Robert Lemons is a fire investigator with a South Florida fire department. He is also a trained firefighter and paramedic and the handler of Holly, an accelerant detection canine.

GETTING STARTED

"Once I became part of the fire department, I got a broader view of what goes on in the department as a whole. And while I do like riding the rescue trucks with the sirens and the lights, the fire investigation end seemed more interesting to me. I watched the investigators come in at a fire and I asked a lot of questions. Why are you doing this? Why are you looking here? What are you looking for? I was persistent. After your supervisors get to know you and see that it's not just idle curiosity but a genuine interest in the job, they help you along."

HOLLY-THE ACCELERANT DETECTION CANINE

"I was sitting in the fire station and saw a magazine article about an accelerant detection canine. That was back in 1989 or 1990. These dogs have only been around since 1988. It was a new twist on what I was already interested in. I spoke to the chief and told him that I'd like him to send me to the Maine State Police Canine Academy, in Portland, for five weeks, with a dog, to learn how to investigate fires.

"He thought that was the funniest thing he'd ever heard! But I showed him the article, did some more research, found out the success rate when using dogs, and then I went back to my chief. He realized a dog like Holly would be a good tool. So in 19901 started looking for a dog. Holly was donated by a local family for this job. Labradors are good for this kind of work. She was three at the time.

"I looked at several dogs before I found Holly. The dog has to have the right temperament. You want a dog who is very social, who likes to be around people. She has to be curious and have a good nose. She can't be afraid of loud noises or new environments. And she can't be afraid of going into places where the footing isn't always sturdy. Holly tromps right through. She enjoys her work.

"Holly is trained to go in after a fire and search for residue of a flammable or combustible liquid such as gasoline, diesel fuel, or lighter fluid. When she finds something, she sits and signals us. We collect the samples from where she's indicated and send them to the lab. Her success rate is very high. Even if the equipment can't pick up the scent, Holly can.

"But we don't always assume that there was arson involved just because the dog sits down and signals us. There are a lot of reasons why flammable liquids are kept in the house. People might store their charcoal lighter fluid inside or gasoline for the lawn mower. Holly can find the fuel but she doesn't know if it was there legitimately. That's where the human fire investigators have to take over.

"Holly has been trained on a food reward system. The only time she eats is when she finds something. That doesn't mean she goes without her regular meals if there are no fires to investigate. On her days off, I take a little dropper of flammable liquid the chemist has prepared and put a few drops down, in the driveway or in my house. Then I put her in a work mode and have her search for this stuff. When she finds it, she gets to eat. This goes on every single day. No little treats or in-between-meal snacks.

'There's a good reason why we use a food reward. A lot of dogs are rewarded with play time. A drug dog will find a suitcase with drugs in it and will start biting and scratching it. The handler will bring out a ball or towel and praise the dog, and then the dog will grab the towel and release the article. But in a fire setting, all that playing would disturb the evidence. We need a dog that will alert by sitting very still.

Holly's training for this work involved five steps: First, through repetition, we imprinted Holly with the odor. Just as you teach a dog to sit over and over, Holly was taught that when she smells this odor (gasoline or any other accelerant), she'll get a food reward. We start with an odor contained in a can, but so she doesn't sit down every time she sees a can, we also put cans out that are empty and odorless.

'Then we put in the alert. It's a two-step passive alert-the 'sit' and 'show me.' Holly learns that in order to get fed she must find the odor, then sit. She comes in, sniffs around the can, sits down, and then I say 'show me.' Holly will put her nose directly where she smells the odor. We teach her this because, in a fire scene, everything is all black, and we have to know exactly what piece of debris has the flammable liquid on it.

"Now we transfer this process to a larger area. Instead of containing the odor in cans, we put it on the can lids, which we spread out on the ground. She then learns to check on the floor. When she's working she makes a sound like a pig rooting around, snuffling as she sniffs the area.

"We also use four or five other odorless lids. She'll see the silver thing on the ground and will sniff until she finds the one with the odor. Then she'll sit and be fed.

"Next we take her to both hot fire scenes, where we know she will find something, and cold fire scenes, where we know she won't. We want to make sure she understands she won't always find something every time she comes to a fire scene.

"Finally, we do a blind test to make sure she really is finding the odor, that it's not just coincidence. A chemist prepares five sample cans. He numbers them from one to five and puts burnt debris in each of them. But he will put a drop of accelerant in only one of the cans, and he's the only one who knows which can it is.

"We take the lids off and let Holly sniff. The chemist checks his log to see if the can she alerted was the right one."

WHAT THE WORK IS LIKE

"You meet a lot of people and interact with different agencies, the local police, the state fire marshall, the federal people. And it's always a big pleasure working with Holly. She's a good partner. But she has her moods, just like we do. There are days you don't feel like working and the same holds true for Holly. Sometimes at fire scenes or-it will always be when it's important-at a demonstration for a fire official, Holly will just look around and say, 'Not today.' You can tell she's just going through the motions.

"The rewards of this job can be few and far between. Especially when you know how a fire started, know that it was arson, but you can't prove it in a court of law. A lot of times you learn that the insurance company had to pay the claim even though you know the owner did it. You get frustrated, but inside you know you did the best job you could do. You did your part."
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