After a small garage fire this fall, investigators were able to quickly determine the cause — a cordless drill battery left in a charger.
The timely determination came from the Papillion Fire Department’s own fire investigation team.
The team — which has been together for a year — is made up of two members of the Papillion Police Department and two members of the La Vista Police Department. Officers Ray Higgins and Chris Goley from Papillion, and Sgt. Ray Harrod and Officer TJ Markowsky from La Vista, all have past volunteer firefighting experience.
They have taken on the Nebraska State Fire Marshal’s Office’s role in investigating fires.
The department sought delegated authority from the State Fire Marshal’s Office in August 2014, which allows for them to conduct building inspections and fire investigations.
“You have to take the whole pie, you can’t just take parts of it,” Higgins said. “Once they took over the inspections, they had to take over the fire investigations.”
The team members — already strong on the police work side of things such as investigating and questioning — have been able to attend training opportunities to better their skills at fire investigating. They’ve all undergone training through the National Fire Academy.
“The four police officers have a very good understanding of the fire side of things,” said Papillion Fire Chief Bill Bowes. “They’ve been great at it. Policing and fire are completely separate disciplines. It takes a different frame of mind to do each one, but since they’ve all had past volunteer [firefighting] experience, they understand both sides of it very, very well.”
The team members are able to pull from their law enforcement backgrounds when investigating fires, particularly if they’ve been deemed arson.
“Some arson investigators are firemen, which they’re very good at cause of origin,” Harrod said. “But when it comes to legal aspects — interviews and arrests of parties — they can’t do that because they don’t have authority. It made sense to have law enforcement officers who have fire backgrounds do it.”
If a fire needs further investigation, particularly if it’s been deemed suspicious, the respective police department takes over. From mid-June to January 2016, they investigated eight fires. All but one of those were accidental.
On average, three of the four investigators are able to make it to the scene and they’re usually able to wrap things up within an hour.
“We’re right on par,” Harrod said of how many fires they’ve investigated. “We don’t want to be too busy.”
The State Fire Marshal’s Office only has a certain number of investigators to cover the entire state, which can push response times into the two-hour mark, Higgins said. But for the local team, it takes about 15 or 20 minutes for one or more members to arrive on scene.
Once team members arrive, they assign a lead investigator and then delegate tasks, including talking to fire crews and the battalion chief, taking any witness statements, walking through the fire scene and taking photos.
“Our goal is to try to be in and out in a timely manner so we’re not tying up our resources and costing our departments a lot of money on overtime, as well as getting the fire department crews back into service in case they have another call,” Higgins said.
If the damage estimate is relatively small and the cause was clearly accidental, the team may not be called in.
Higgins said sometimes battalion chiefs are able to identify the cause of the fire, but want a second set of eyes to confirm.
“They’ve probably called us more than what they would have called the State Fire Marshal’s Office, which I don’t have a problem with,” he said. “Like anything else, more experience is more training.”
An important piece is having a good working relationship with the fire department.
“They’re very, very professional,” Harrod said. “They’re good guys and we had the chance to know them before and now, working with them, it’s been seamless.”
Higgins added: “We’ve seen them on calls. We’ve got a pretty good rapport with them. On a fire scene, they know how we react and we know how they react, how their mindset is.”
For Higgins, it’s a way to stay active in the fire service.
“I know darn good and well I’m not going to be able to go crawling around houses when I’m 55 and 65 years old, but this allows me to be active in the fire service in another capacity,” he said.
For Harrod, firefighting is something he enjoys, but fire investigation is a challenge.
“Firefighting’s fun, but the fire investigation, it’s complex,” he said. “We’re approaching it with a team concept to do accurate, detailed investigations.”
One year in, things are running smoothly.
“It’s going really good,” Harrod said. “We’re pulling into our niche now and it’s working out well.”
But some pieces are still a work in progress and Higgins said they’ll make necessary changes as needed.
“It’s worked out really well,” Higgins said. “It was a long time coming. For the residents, the fire department, the police departments, it’s paid dividends.”