Dexter firefighters and local police detectives, along with several others from neighboring departments as far away as Nixa, learned a lot about determining the cause of a fire during a two-day workshop that took place at the Stoddard County Ambulance District facility over the recent weekend.
Industrial and specialized Training Coordinator Dean Martin from Columbia, Mo., headed up the workshop through the institute. The course included classroom instruction both days and a hands-on operation on the SCAD grounds on Sunday morning for 22 participants.
Through the grant, Martin and his staff provided firemen and detectives the basic knowledge and skills necessary to conduct initial fire cause determinations at structural fire scenes.
"What we're trying to accomplish in training firefighters throughout the state of Missouri is to teach them how to identify those indicators which would then cause them to call for a fire investigator," Martin explained.
Those indicators might be as simple as finding a gas can in an inappropriate setting in a burned structure or as complex as examining a burn pattern on the wall of a structure to help identify the path of a fire.
On Sunday morning, following the previous day's classroom instruction, firefighters put their newfound knowledge to work analyzing three separate fires. Those fires were set in a unique self-contained unit that was delivered on site Saturday to the SCAD parking area. The unit is a mobile fire cause simulation trainer. A glance of the unit being pulled into town hardly revealed its intended purpose. The trailer contains three separate rooms, each about eight by ten feet. Old, discarded sofas, a chair, and a mattress served to transform the empty sheet rocked rooms into model bedrooms and living rooms in a typical home. Out of view of the class participants, Martin and his assistant, Adjunct Instructor Dave Nichols, set fires in each of the compartments. One fire was set to illustrate arson, using a matchbook near some furniture. Another fire was set between the mattress and box springs of a bed. The third fire represented an unintentional fire that started in a plastic trash can.
Each of the three compartments of the mobile unit are housed within thick fire-resistant walls. New sheet rock is installed after every course is completed, since they sustain the same damage they would had they been in a "real" structural fire.
The mobile unit has smoke vents on the top of each room and a built-in sprinkler system that is used to extinguish the fires once they've done the damage that needs to be inspected. The rooms are also equipped with thermostats on the exterior of the unit that allows instructors to keep tabs on the interior temperatures as the fires burn.
When the firemen were released from the classroom to inspect the damage Sunday morning, it was their task to determine, based the evidence at the scene, whether the fires were of a suspicious nature. As the firefighters learned how to identify those signs at a fire scene, they also learned to be cautious in preserving some of that evidence at a fire.
"What we try to accomplish with these three burn cells," Martin explained, "is to set up different scenarios and actually set up a fire investigation, not only to determine the cause of the fire but also to determine where the fire started in the room."
"Our goal," he noted, "is to train firefighters on how to identify those times when they should call for an investigator."
After the classroom participants inspected the three charred cells, they returned to the classroom to explain their findings during individual presentations, concluding the 16-hour class.
Pre and post-tests were administered to all attendees to evaluate how much is gained by taking part in the instruction.
It was strictly coincidental, explained Dexter Fire Chief Don Seymore, that the arson-related course took place within days following the downtown Dexter fire that was rumored initially to involve arson. Seymore stressed that the involvement of a fire Marshall at a fire scene does not automatically indicate a suspicion of arson.
"This workshop was actually scheduled months ago," he confirmed.
Since the Fire Cause Determination and Arson Awareness program is funded through a FEMA grant, there was no charge for the course to come to Dexter.