Multi-agency research exercise to aid future fire investigations

Published: 2nd May 2008

More than 120 emergency services personnel and university researchers have descended on the Southern Tablelands town of Braidwood this week as part of a multi-agency research exercise that will help develop new techniques for investigating fire scenes and fire-related crimes.

Officers from the NSW Fire Brigades' (NSWFB) Fire Investigation and Research Unit and the NSW Police Force's Forensic Services Group and State Crime Command are taking part in the exercise, which is being conducted in a derelict house donated by NSWFB Deputy Captain Steven Hockey.

Rooms of the old house have been set up to simulate different types of crime scenes, and will be systematically burnt under controlled conditions to enable the NSWFB and NSW Police Force to assess the impact of fire on crime scenes.

NSWFB Superintendent Chris Lewis, Manager of the Fire Investigation and Research Unit, said the NSWFB would be conducting a series of tests throughout the week examining both fire safety and fire investigation techniques.

"The NSWFB will be conducting further testing to measure just how quickly the photoelectric smoke alarms activate in a fire, and comparing this to the activation times for ionisation smoke alarms, and will also examine how effective domestic sprinkler systems are in containing the spread of a fire in the home.

"We will also be capturing footage of the fires from both internal and external perspectives which will be used to train NSWFB fire investigators in the behaviour of fire and to refine existing fire investigation techniques," Superintendent Lewis said.

Superintendent Lewis said the research would also assist the NSWFB in training other government agencies in fire investigation.

"The NSWFB plays a key role in training other agencies in fire investigation so this project is vital in ensuring that our methods and practices are up-to-date and practical."

In addition, two of the NSWFB's accelerant detection dogs, Sheba and Winna, are taking part in the exercise on Wednesday to further test the efficiency of the dogs under working conditions.

Assistant Commissioner Carlene York, Commander of NSW Police Force Forensic Services Group (FSG) said the exercise would heighten the NSW Police Force’s capability in response to fire investigation.

"It is expected we will have hours of world class fire development footage taken from multiple fire and heat proof cameras designed and built by FSG staff," Assistant Commissioner York said.

"The footage will be used by police to develop six interactive training products, and will also be provided to NSWFB.  It will create unprecedented realism in the training and assessment of fire investigators in a classroom environment."

Assistant Commissioner York said the exercise would give police an opportunity to test advancements in the location and recovery of DNA and fingerprints at fire scenes.

"Clearly this is important because it will help police in the investigation of fires, particularly those where people have been seriously injured or killed in suspicious circumstances," she said.

Detective Superintendent Nick Bingham, Property Crime Squad Commander, said "During the week we are simulating homicide fire scenes, and have Arson Team and Homicide Squad detectives on site to learn more about the investigation of these types of crimes. The additional skills they learn here will be invaluable in future criminal investigations and the knowledge will be passed on to colleagues to assist them too."

Academics from two Sydney-based universities will also be carrying out research during the exercise, which will be invaluable in the examination of crime scenes and investigation of fires.

The University of New South Wales will be using thermo-couples to chart the development of fire and fire modelling, as well as spray patterns of domestic sprinklers.

Academics from the University of Western Sydney will be validating sampling techniques for liquid-based accelerants and will fit experienced and junior fire investigators with custom-made goggles to monitor the way they work in investigating a fire.

Editor's note: The research exercise commenced on Monday 28 April and will conclude on Friday 2 May, when the house will be completely destroyed by fire. However, the final stage of the exercise will be dependent on the day’s weather conditions.