Fire investigator is part detective, part scientist

This feature article was published in the Calgary Herald.

Fire investigator is part detective, part scientist

Smoke is sometimes still choking the air when Dennis Friesen arrives to a scene, in the  hours after a devastating house fire.  There’s a chemical tang in the air that sears the nostrils, and a clean white outline on the floor.  The outline is in the shape of a person curled into the fetal position, the edges neatly painted by smoke particles.

Dennis is not with the fire department, or the police, but he’s there, in plain clothes, alongside those agencies to investigate what happened here. He and his partners work for Origin and Cause, a company that’s recently begun work in Calgary.

Calgary Herald Fire Investigator Origin and Cause article Erin Lawrence

Part CSI, part firefighter and arson investigator, and part insurance expert, Dennis and his fellow investigators are there to tell who or what’s to blame when something burns. Some days their jobs mean indirectly being the bearer of devastating news; a father will  learn from their forensic work that the nail he hammered into a wall for a photograph pierced wiring and sparked the fire that killed his children. Other days it’s reading body language and noticing a twinge in the face of a man denying any knowledge of what sparked a fire that incinerated his life’s work. These investigators are there to observe, seek the truth, solve mysteries, and, in some cases, to assign blame.

“We investigate fires and explosions and any other failures — mechanical, electrical failures, materials failures. Our job is just looking to put the pieces together to explain the origin and the cause of an incident,” explains George Costandi, business development and marketing manager for Origin and Cause.

Most often, Origin and Cause deals with insurance companies. An investigator arrives in the hours or days after a major fire or loss, to help try to explain what happened, and who should pay for the damage. Why is a private fire investigator needed, when many local fire departments employ their own? In part, it’s because fire departments don’t always send an investigator to the scene of a smaller fire. When they do, it can sometimes take months for a publicly employed investigator to complete a fire investigation report. Insurance companies want to get hotel bills paid, reimbursements approved, and rebuilding underway, but moving forward can’t go far without an idea of the cause.

There’s also another layer to the “who should pay” question; if three homes burn, and homeowners each have a different insurance company, the home of origin needs to be determined so the insurance companies know how to divide up the bills. If a faulty  appliance touches off that same fire, insurance companies may be able to recoup their losses by going after the company whose product is to blame. This kind of insurance shell game is so common there’s a term for it: subrogation.

While house fires and businesses going up in flames are not daily occurrences in the city of Calgary, the causes of many of these fires are often everyday household items.

“Probably one of the biggest common causes of fire that we have is extension cords,” explains Ken Swan, one of the company’s investigators who works in Winnipeg. “They get written off in stats as ‘electrical,’ but it’s not really an electrical fire, it’s human failing. If the extension cord was used properly, in the circumstance it was designed for, it wouldn’t fail.”

Swan has seen more than his share of disasters starting with those everyday household cords being abused and misused.

“Extension cords are meant for temporary use, not permanent use. People will have their big deep freeze, the old fridge, and the old block heater … they’ve got old compressors running day in day out through that old extension cord, and it fails.“

Abuse and misuse can include running the cords under carpet or rugs. That’s dangerous because it allows heat to build up, which could eventually lead to fire. Overloading the cords is also a frequent problem, as is walking, driving, or rolling a chair repeatedly over them. The weight and the pressure gradually break down the delicate wires inside the extension cord’s sheathing, and that can eventually cause a fire.

Friesen has seen extension cords do serious damage too. He was called to investigate a house fire, and traced the source back to a hundred foot extension cord which had been connected to a block heater in a garage. Much of the cord had been coiled neatly, and a car ended up parked on the coil.

“The coil ends up being like a heating element, and basically what happens is it can’t dissipate the heat. Eventually the tire of that vehicle ignited, caught the car on fire, which extended to the garage, which ended up actually turning into a fatal house fire.”

Recognizing patterns is the bread and butter of Origin and Cause’s investigators. Seeing the same appliances, for example, spark house fires can trigger North America-wide action, and fire investigators are often the front-line folks where massive consumer recalls begin. They notice patterns in appliance wiring causing fires, they see repeated problems with car components leading to deaths, or notice that a particular brand of toaster has torched more than its fair share of kitchens. Once the patterns are detected, manufacturers are notified, and that’s where recalls begin.

“We have an interest in preventing things from happening in the future,” explains Swan, “One of the only ways you can prevent future occurrences is to understand past behaviour. If we have suddenly an appliance showing up, we’ve got one, our competitor has one, somebody else has got one, we need to put manufacturers on the list and let them know, ‘hey, you’ve got a component in one of your appliances that’s starting to fail. You need to  look at taking corrective action and possibly doing a recall before somebody loses their life’.”

So how do they put the pieces together? The investigators say observation, and learning to recognize and identify patterns is key to solving the mysteries they see daily. They also rely on previous experience, memories, and talking things out with colleagues to piece events together, because frequently, the clues are burned to a crisp, or hidden in a smouldering pile of ashes or melted debris.

“You narrow it down to the room of origin, then to the area of origin, then to the exact point of origin, the material that first ignited, and then what was the heat source that ignited that material,” explains Friesen. He won’t explain much more about his methods, for fear of dropping hints to criminals.

While Origin and Cause doesn’t tend to get involved in criminal matters, they frequently act as detectives and even gentle interrogators. At the scene of one fire, Swan suspected a candle had tipped over in the owner’s office, causing the entire building to go up in flames. The owner denied he had a candle inside, but Swan knew better. He’d seen the telltale burn patterns before, and suspected fear of getting in trouble was making the man hold back. So Swan used a well-worn technique for helping victims save face.

“You have to take people for a little walk sometimes away from earshot of other people and tell them, ‘I know you’re not telling me the truth’. I probably understand the reason for it, but you’re digging yourself into a big hole for no reason because if you didn’t have that candle going in your office, basically it’s that the candle fell over, or you set your office on fire. Which is it?”

What Swan was able to tease from the man in the end was that he had been conducting some non-business-appropriate activities in his office with a co-worker. The candle, initially supplying the ambience, was accidentally tipped over, touching off a fire the duo couldn’t put out, and they were forced to flee the building. Swan suspected rightly the cause was accidental, but frequently, people will realize they’ve made a mistake and try to cover it up. If you’ve done nothing wrong or had a legitimate accident, investigators say, there’s no reason to mislead anyone. To paraphrase a popular saying in insurance and investigation circles, “insurance covers even stupidity”.

In part, it’s that ability to use harsh examples to teach others lessons that may one day save a home, or a life, that keep these investigators going.

“It’s just the challenge of figuring out how the fire started, says Friesen, “Being a husband and a father, you don’t want that fire to occur with your family, or extended family or anybody.”

Swan echoes that sentiment.

“I like the job because you’re always thinking … it’s interesting. You meet a lot of people and you’re able to help them to some extent. It’s also like putting a jigsaw puzzle together but you didn’t know what the picture was supposed to look like. You don’t have the jigsaw puzzle box in front of you to copy the picture. You have all these pieces of the puzzle and it’s up to you to fit them together and make some sense. That’s why I like doing it.”