ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — It’s not surprising some still think a fire should be solved in the time it takes to watch an episode of CSI or Forensic Files. Investigations Chief Bill McGovern with the NYS Office of Fire Prevention and Control says he’s heard it all before.
“I do shake my head often. Television is entertainment, and I’ll leave it at that,” Chief McGovern laughs to NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton. “I think oftentimes people assume fire investigations happen rapidly. It is a painstaking process. It does take some time. People also assume all of the evidence is burnt up in the fire.”
Chief McGovern describes a fire scene like a puzzle—one that was much harder to solve when he first started volunteering in the 90s.
“It used to be things were passed down as lore or tradition and we are now forced to back up our findings. It’s no longer because we said so,” he explains.
Luckily, he says fire is fairly predictable, and finding the point of origin can tell a lot.
“Fire burns the same way given certain circumstances based on the fuel package or the type of fuel and the style of the building, weather influences,” McGovern explains.
“Where the fire burns the longest, we would expect to see the most damage,” he adds. “We might be able to trace back to a desk or the refrigerator or the stove, and then we focus our investigation.”
Albany plagued with several major fires: one that destroyed the former Doane Stuart campus and another that ruined several homes in the Mansion Neighborhood. In the case of Doane Stuart, local investigators ruled out electric, gas, and spontaneous combustion—leaving a human source the most likely.
“If there is no other accidental or natural ignition source in that area [point of origin], that’s an indicator to us that we would have to examine further,” McGovern says.
The OFPC often helps local investigators piece their puzzle together. He explains it’s important to collect as much as you can quickly before more evidence crumbles away and a scene usually needs to be cleaned up for safety.
“Once we leave the scene, the community has an obligation to make sure that nobody goes there and gets injured afterwards,” he says.
“We are using drones and other UAS systems on a regular basis. We can fly the drones through portions of the building that we may not be able to safely access. We will send investigators out, and we also have accelerant or ignitable liquid detection K9s that will assist us,” McGovern explains.
They also provide extensive training to keep investigators sharp. Including a constant reminder: don’t jump to conclusions.
“It’s a very difficult thing to avoid even jumping to conclusions ourselves. That’s why we are so detail-oriented and fact-based in our determinations. We can’t assume just because there were a series of fires that they were all related,” he says.