Origin and Cause Team
History | Evolution | Today
Part I - The Original "Origin and Cause Team", now called the Fire Investigation Team
by Chief William "Bill" Lellis, Larkspur FD, retired.
In June of 1971 a group of young Marin County fire prevention officers realized they needed to gain more knowledge on the art and science of fire investigation. The application of the “Scientific Method” was still many years away. The first team consisted of Assistant Chief (AC) Stan Rowan, Marin County; AC George Hettema, Fairfax; AC Dick McLaren, San Anselmo; Fire Marshal Rolf Stahlbaum, Kentfield; AC Bill Lellis, Larkspur; AC Lee Larson, Corte Madera; AC Hank Pierroz, Mill Valley; Fire Marshal (FM) Ken Howe, Tiburon; BC Bob Quayle, Sausalito; FM Dick Beyer, Novato; FM Ken Mazza, San Rafael.
One of the reasons for the success of this team was that most of them had a 40-hour workweek, making them available on very short notice for helping another FD. The concept was quite simple.
Each month four members were on the response list, which was kept at Marin County Dispatch. When a local fire investigator needed assistance in determining the cause of a fire, they simply made a request with the Marin Communications Center, and a team would respond and assemble at the headquarters of the requesting department.
We believe the Marin County Origin and Cause Team was the first in California to Implement this type of team concept. There was very little training to be had in the broader fire service at that time, and almost no publications to review and learn from.
John A. Kennedy founded the first private fire investigation firm in 1955, and he published a very large book on Fire Investigation in 1962, but it was a very expensive book that many of us could not afford. Now retired, Kennedy still serves as President of the National Association of Fire Investigators.
In December, 1960, C.W. Stickney, the State of Oregon Fire Marshal, gave a talk on "How to Identify Fire Causes." The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) published his presentation in their "Firemen" magazine, and later made a 15-page publication for investigators with the same title. This was a great resource for the new investigators. Since its publication, a number of the concepts have been proven invalid in a court of law, such as the annealing of springs, alligatoring patterns, and the crazing of glass. Today's "Fire Cause Determination for Company Officers" course at the National Fire Academy still references his work and articles.
The first scientific book on this subject was written by world renowned forensic scientist Dr. Paul Leland Kirk (1902-1970), of the University of California. It was dedicated to the subject of explaining fire investigation from a scientific point of view. He was a chemist, forensic scientist, and participant in the Manhattan Project who specialized in microscopy.
In 1955, Dr. Kirk also investigated the bedroom in which Sam Sheppard supposedly murdered his wife and provided the key blood spatter evidence that led to his acquittal in a retrial over 12 years after the murder. The highest honor one can receive today in the criminalistics section of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences is named after Dr. Kirk.
Dr. John DeHaan of Northern California has been involved in many national and international efforts to improve fire investigation. He has authored seven editions of Kirk’s Fire Investigation since 1982. As the most widely used textbook in the field, it has promoted the scientific investigation of fire and explosion events. That work, and its companion text Forensic Fire Scene Reconstruction (co-authored with Dr. David Icove in 2004), are frequently cited as authoritative sources to help disprove many of the misconceptions once relied upon in the this area.
His business today is based in Vallejo, California and is named "Fire-Ex Forensics".
The California Conference of Arson Investigators was established in 1954, but it was mainly for the full time fire investigators such as from the San Francisco, Los Angeles and Oakland FD’s, not for the newly assigned Marin County fire investigator with another full-time job. The first formal course locally was through the College of Marin Fire Science program in the fall of 1966. This class was taught by Lt. Kelly, a full time investigator from San Francisco Fire Department.
This would be our first exposure to fire investigations, and we learned how far we had to go to become competent investigators.
The first real insight as to how much we did not know, was on an early morning fire in Kentfield, in June of 1971. The team assembled on site to assist Kentfield Fire District in identifying the cause of a single family home fire, see Figure 1.
After many hours of digging and taking the floor down, we were no closer to determining the cause.
It appeared to the team that the cause was in the master bedroom, in the vicinity of the sewing machine, which shared a common wall with the master bath, see Figure 2.
However, we wouldn't want to go to court on our very limited evidence. With permission from the home owner and the insurance company, we were allowed to hold the scene until the next Saturday morning, at which time a fire investigator from the State Fire Marshal’s office would be available to assist the team.
So on Saturday morning, Fire Investigator George Berdan arrived and our ‘real world‘ education began.
He made a quick 360° walk around of the exterior of the structure, and then entered the building working from what we now call the least to most fire damaged rooms. This concept was new to the team.
After entering the master bedroom, and to our dismay, he determined the location and cause of the fire within five minutes.
Two very important fire investigation concepts were learned that day.
1. Work least to most; and
2. Account for all low burns.
The origin of the fire was in the bathroom and the cause was an electric short of the portable heater used in this room, see Figure.3. A black scorch mark could be seen, where the power cord had etched a burn mark into the title floor. The heater was found in the debris pile on the driveway, see Figure 4; as well as the door to the bathroom; see Figure 5.
Upon close examination, we saw how the cord came under the bathroom door and into the pile of fabric at the sewing machine location and burned back into the bathroom at mid-height, see figure 6.
The Fire Prevention Officers would host a number of one day workshops over the years on the subject of investigation. See photos of some of the early classes on this page header and the first in the column on right. Some of those early instructors were Sargent Gerald Green on the San Rafael Police Department, speaking on the subject of juvenile fire setters;
Marin Independent Journal Newspaper Photographer Jim Kean was always happy to share his skills with the team along with giving copies of his fire scene photos; and Deputy District Attorney Gary Thomas, on the subject of Miranda and the proper methods of obtaining a search warrant.
On August 7, 1970, Gary would be paralyzed from the events of the Marin County Courthouse shootout, but even with this handicap he was always there for any team member to call upon for help. The incident happened when 17-year-old Jonathan Jackson attempted to negotiate the freedom of the Soledad Brothers, including his older brother George, by kidnapping Superior Court Judge Harold Haley from the Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael. The resulting shootout left four men dead, including both Jackson and Judge Haley. Two others were wounded, including Gary Thomas.
When Hamilton Air Force Base was being decommissioned, the team had three two- story buildings to burn to our 'hearts content.' One team would set the fire and the other would investigate and document the fire. This was like going to a post-graduate course on fire investigation.
Multi Million Dollar Fire Loss Discovered By Team.
One of the great success stories for the team was in December of 1971, when Fire Marshal Ken Mazza of San Rafael made a call to the team for help. SRFD had a major fire in a four story apartment house, see Figure 7.
The room of origin was the master bedroom in the vicinity of the left side of the headboard. Every unit had an eight-foot zero clearance heater that was UL listed to have combustibles fall directly on top without any ignition. This appeared to be the area of origin but the cause could not be determined, see Figure 8.
About two weeks later Ken experienced another fire elsewhere, at the end of the same type of heater.
The only heat source was the heater, but the controls showed no sign of shorting or overheating, see Figure 9. While investigating this fire, the team was told by the complex manager that he would like us to look at a vacant apartment were a small area of rug was burned, see Figure 10.
The team discovered the same heater was shorting out at the seven-foot mark, dropping two red hot BB sized materials onto the shag carpet, see Figure 11 and 12. The only reason the fire did not extend beyond a very small area was the apartment was vacant with no furniture, and the ambient temperature was below 40°F. The fire could not sustain itself and went out.
A few weeks later the team was invited by former Larkspur Fire Chief George Bartram, who was then the Northern California Director for Allstate Insurance, to make a presentation to the Allstate adjusters and investigators. A number of fires were presented, and when the heater fire came on the screen a higher noise level could be heard in the room. We stopped our presentation thinking something was wrong. We were asked to show these slides again. After doing so, we were asked if they could obtain a copy of these slides. As it turned out, Allstate had paid out millions of dollars in claims caused by these heaters, but were never able to directly say it was the heater. They were about to recoup their losses.
Cause, Origin and the Constitution:
Until 1967, the fire service life safety inspection programs had never been Constitutionally challenged. The Seattle Fire Department was about to inspect the warehouse of a man named Mr. See.
The inspector was told that they could not enter his building without a warrant. After being told by various courts from Municipal all the way up to the State Supreme Court that the department had the right to inspect, Mr. See appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, who agreed to hear his case. And on June 5, 1967, the court ruled in a 6-3 decision in favor of See.
To complicate matters, a year earlier the Court ruled in the case of Miranda v. Arizona. With these two cases on the books California Attorney General Thomas C. Lynch sent out a directive to the Fire Chiefs stating that all fire inspectors should receive training in arrest, search and seizure (P.C. 832). A 26-hour class was conducted at Larkspur Fire Station Two, taught by the Fairfax Police Chief.
The gathering of evidence found at a fire scene would also require Supreme Court intervention, in the landmark decision of Michigan v. Tyler on May 31, 1978. The basis of the Courts’ ruling was that the investigators had to prove that they were on the fire ground legally for the evidence to be admitted into court.
The final Supreme Court decision that is still vibrating throughout the courthouses of America, was Daubert v. Merrel, which introduced the term “Scientific Method’.
The team went on to assist in investigating hundreds of fires, and as members of the original team became chief officers, it was handed off to a new generation of Fire Investigators in Marin.
The Journey Was Unique and Surprising at Times
In June of 1961, with only nine months in the service, I attended my first seminar at U.C.L.A. As a 23 year-old rookie firefighter. In a hall with a hundred fire investigators, I was out of my element to say the least.
The instructors for this seminar were at the end of their careers, which for many had started in the 1940’s.
One of the strangest pieces of information I received was how to determine if the fire was set for sexual gratification. We were instructed to walk out among the crowd and look at the crotch of all male bystanders to see if that area of their clothing was wet; indicating they had climaxed at the site of the fire. If so, they should be taken into custody for questioning.
Coming in Part II, the transition to the Team today, and the current profession. We will also be featuring a very complex and extended investigation in the 1950's, led by Chuck Daniels when he was working with the DA's office.