Fire investigator shares insights on safety-first approach

Fire investigator Laura Billon gives an overview of her work to the Falls Village Volunteer Fire Department.

Patrick L. Sullivan

Fire investigator shares insights on safety-first approach

FALLS VILLAGE — Laura Billon, a veteran fire investigator and educator from southern California, gave a detailed overview of fire investigation practices to an audience of firefighters and fire marshals at the Emergency Services Center in Falls Village on Saturday, April 20.

The event was part of the Falls Village Volunteer Fire Departments 100th anniversary celebration.

Billon started off by saying that the common thread in all fire investigations is “Safety First.”

“Be a risk evaluator, not a risk taker.”

The next item she hammered home at several points in the presentation.

“Absence of evidence is not evidence of its absence.”

Fires involve high temperatures and the release of gases. “Things disappear or are unrecognizable.”

That doesn’t mean the truth cannot be teased out of what remains.

It does mean that investigations must use the scientific method, proceed carefully and systematically, and document everything.

Billon said advances in forensic science mean that fire investigations are more carefully scrutinized than they were 40 or 50 years ago.

And if a case does get to court, investigators need to be able to refer to their case files and now immediately how they reached a conclusion.

This can happen weeks, months or even years after the event. Billon recalled receiving a subpoena eight years after a fire.

The systematic approach to a fire investigation looks like this:

Start with the exterior and move to the interior.

Move from the area of least damage to the area of most damage.

Make sure the fire scene documentation is consistent among investigators.

Use the same method every time, regardless of the size or type of fire.

“A dumpster fire or a large factory — the approach is the same.”

Investigators should always consider the following items:

The weather at the time of the fire.

Is the building vacant?

Have there been previous alarms at the location?

Are people and/or vehicles leaving the area?

Are there familiar faces among the onlookers?

And “Do you see something that’s aberrational?”

Other considerations include the color of the smoke and/or flames, how big or how fast the fire is moving, unusual odors such as gasoline or kerosene.

Sometimes fires occur in buildings that are zoned for one purpose and used for another.

Fire investigators are law enforcement officers, and sometimes other agencies need help.

Billon used the example of a building that housed a legitimate (if seedy) internet pornography operation.

Billon got a call from an FBI agent who asked if he and a colleague could tag along on a surprise fire inspection, posing as fire investigators.

While Billon did her inspection, the agents slipped away and planted small cameras in the facility.

Turned out the porno business was a front for a massive methamphetamine operation.

A big part of fire investigations doesn’t involve poking around in smoldering rubble.

Interviews (not interrogations, Billon was quick to add) are essential in finding the truth about a fire.

She cited the “80/20 Rule,” where 20% of the evidence at the scene is forensic and 80% is from interviews.

Billon emphasized that “arson” is a legal term. To charge a suspect with arson, prosecutors need to prove “willful, malicious or reckless intent.”

This is easier said than done. Billon said that about 25% of fires can be proven to be arson.

These cases typically break down like this:

Vandalism, attempts to conceal a crime, excitement or thrill-seeking, revenge, profit, and extremism/terrorism.

She gave an example of a fire set for profit.

Speaking as a budding arsonist: “Hello, insurance company? I need as much fire insurance as I can get, and I need it by Saturday.”

Speaking as herself: “That is what we call a clue.”

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