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On arson squad, it's all about teamwork

March 22, 2011

PAWTUCKET — Investigating the crime of arson requires a lot of teamwork, specialized training, and a nose for rooting out suspicious substances. And sometimes, the team gets valuable help from a nose that's cold and wet.
One of the most high-profile arson cases in recent history is the one that took place on Feb. 16 at 35 Vale Street. Thanks to some quick investigative work by state and local fire and police officials, and a specially trained dog on loan from Massachusetts State Police, the suspects accused of setting the fire were arrested and charged just two days later with the crime.
Pawtucket Fire Capt. Steven Parent, who is also the city's fire marshal, said that arson is one of the most difficult crimes to prove short of finding “a person standing there with a match in their hand or a videotape of someone setting the fire.” Nevertheless, arson is found to be behind a number of the fires that take place annually in the city, whether for reasons such as the owner facing financial difficulties, or, as was allegedly the case on Vale Street, a matter of intimidation or revenge.
When a fire looks suspicious, because of the burn pattern, physical evidence left at the scene or other factors that raise red flags, Parent and three other members of the Pawtucket Fire Department, Lt. John Dolan, Lt. Steve Galuska and Lt. Paul Dooley, function as the city's arson squad. The four have earned certification in various aspects of fire inspection, building code enforcement and arson investigation, according to state and national training standards.
“Fortunately, my staff has been consistent. The people there are the ones who want to be there,” said Parent. “All of us have 20 years or more on the job, so we know how fire would typically travel.” As an added bonus, he said that he and the other three also have side skills in the building trades that come in handy when looking at fire scenes. He said that Dolan has a construction background and is good with reading blueprints and plans, Dooley has “an excellent background in buildings and fixtures,” and Galuska is “the analytical one” who follows clues tenaciously. Parent, himself, is a licensed pipe fitter with an understanding of plumbing and HVAC systems.
Parent said that when it comes to fire scene investigations, the fire department often works with Pawtucket Police Detective Robert Matook, who is the Police Department liaison. Two more police officers are also currently undergoing fire inspection training to add to the pool of resources. “The police do the work from their end. It's a lot like putting the pieces of a puzzle together,” said Parent. In the case of suspected arson, he said the police will testify as to conditions, what was found at the scene, or any background facts that are important, such as financial problems or domestic issues, said Parent.
In addition, the city's building officials are usually brought in to look at code issues. Building Official John Hanley, Electrical Inspector James Lewis and Mechanical Inspector Alan Johnson all visit fire scenes and give an assessment. “We have a really good dynamic with the police and building officials. It's not this way in some other communities,” Parent said.
Many times, Parent has run into a building owner or tenant who is scared about being held responsible for a fire that was accidental. These often include the people who try to do their own electrical work and it causes wiring to go awry or use a blow torch on a pipe that then sparks a blaze. “And we're seeing more do-it-yourselfers” in this economy,” he noted.
Other times, Parent noted, carelessness or stupidity is behind the cause. There have been countless occasions where someone was working on their car in the garage and used a drop light that got “dropped,” causing the bulb to pop and ignite spilled gasoline. Last year, firefighters responded to a garage fire where the tenant had been using a grill inside a garage. “People worry they are going to get charged or that the insurance company won't make a payment. But an accident is an accident. We don't charge people for not using good judgment,” he said.
Other frequent causes of fire in a city like Pawtucket that has many older homes is overloaded electrical circuits. Once again, the economic climate and the harsh winter has led to more cases of illegal apartments in basements or attics and the use of space heaters. Many of the houses have antiquated electrical systems that are not designed to handle heavy usage from computers and game systems, TVs, cell phone chargers and other electronic devices “When we see extension cords running from the basement to a second floor apartment, we know there is a problem,” joked Parent.
When arson is suspected, the investigation goes deeper, looking at factors such as where the fire started, how rapidly it spread, the direction of the blaze, the weather conditions, and a host of other factors. It is difficult, he noted, because much of the evidence is obviously washed away in the torrent of water used to extinguish the blaze. “We try to rule out the obvious potential causes,” he said. However, where an accelerant is suspected, such as at Vale Street, samples of the floor, walls and other areas are cut out and sent off to a laboratory for testing.
This is where the canine factor comes in. To help with the Vale Street inquiry, Parent said that through the state Fire Marshal's Office, Pawtucket officials contacted the Massachusetts State Police, which has several canines that are trained to detect any petroleum-based accelerant. Massachusetts State Trooper Michael Peters brought one of the dogs, a yellow lab/golden retriever mix named “Vic,” to Vale Street, and the dog promptly indicated several areas of the floor in the hallway outside of where the fire originated as testing positive for an accelerant. “We have used this dog several times. He's awesome,” Parent said.
Trooper Michael Peters, of Wareham, Mass., said that four-year-old Vic, who both lives and works with him, is one of five nationally certified, Accelerant Detection Canine Teams which are regionally deployed. Each team was trained through the Connecticut State Police by a “food reward” method. He said the 300-hour program involves repeated efforts to get a dog to react to the scent of a petroleum-based accelerant, and then to immediately sit at the point of detection. The dogs are trained to detect about 13 different odors from various petroleum-based products, including gasoline, kerosene and charcoal lighter fluid.
Peters said it's all done through repetition: place a dab of 50-percent evaporated gasoline near the dog's snout and once an exchange of air is heard, within one and a half-seconds, feed him some Kibble. “You do it 150 times and eventually, the dog starts to associate the odor of gasoline to food. Then you start to introduce “sit” and do that hundreds of times. The dog starts to learn that if he smells an odor and sits, he gets fed,” said Peters.
Once that basic level of training is achieved, the dog is introduced to fire scenes, first those with just smoke damage, and then ones of increasing severity. Eventually, the dog learns to differentiate between the products of combustion and the products that are traced directly to the fire. The dogs help the investigators identify the areas where to take a sample from.
“It's an intensive, time-consuming program, but it pays off,” Peters said. He noted that, once fully trained, the dogs save a significant amount of man hours with their nose work, and the money spent on lab samples. Prior to having the dogs, investigators would take blind samples based on the burn pattern of the fire. Using the dogs to zero-in allows for far less samples and useless lab work.
Parent said that Trooper Peters and Vic were also brought in to another suspicious fire scene, one that occurred at a house on Glenwood Avenue. In this case, Vic indicated that he smelled an accelerant in the basement, but the evidence was more inconclusive. He noted that it is not necessarily out of the ordinary for a petroleum-based product to be found in a home that has nothing to do with arson. Yet, the fire marshal said the while the cause of this blaze is listed as undetermined, many questions still linger about the origin.
At something like the massive blaze that occurred last October at the Union Wadding mill complex, arson was suspected. The mill was vacant and empty, the power had been shut off, and the fire originated in a far corner, away from the side of the complex where apartments were occupied. While the state Fire Marshal's Office posted a $10,000 cash reward for information leading to the fire, the case, to date, remains unsolved.
Federal, state and local fire and police officials sifted through the rubble of the burned out mill complex, looking for clues. Because it was up for foreclosure, the financial and tax records of the property owners were scrutinized. Yet, there was also evidence that people had been able to gain entry to the empty mill from time to time. “That was a perfect example of how difficult it is sometimes to come up with an actual determination of what started the fire,” said Parent.


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