Towns adopt regional approach for fire investigations


Tisbury fire inspector Jim Rogers was careful not to use the word “regional,” but the Dukes County Fire Investigation Team is an Island-wide approach to a state-mandated job not easily done by individual towns.

Since the Coconut Grove nightclub fire in Boston in 1942, which claimed almost 500 lives, Massachusetts General Laws (Chapter 148) have required that the fire chief of every town in the Commonwealth, or someone he appoints, investigate the cause of every fire. The law presumes that knowing how fires start can lead to more effective fire-prevention. If there is evidence of a crime or if there is a fatality, the fire must be reported to the state fire marshal, whose primary investigators are state troopers.

Such investigations begin as soon as possible, usually while the fire is still burning, when the chief himself is usually busy with fire suppression. So the chief delegates the investigation to someone else, but not everyone knows what to look for. Fire investigators take a 40-hour course at the state Fire Academy, and they improve their skills with continuing education workshops.

Fire investigation is time-consuming and labor-intensive. In the worst case, when the building has completely burned and collapsed into the cellar, the process is a painstaking “delayering, almost like archaeology,” according to Mr. Rogers. And, investigating the burned-out shell of a building can be dangerous work.

Moreover, fire investigation often requires training more appropriate to police work than to fire fighting, such as questioning witnesses. Sometimes fire investigators stumble across evidence of unrelated crimes (for example illegal drugs or weapons). For these reasons, the state fire marshal has recently begun requiring that each town’s team include a police detective as well as a fire department investigator.

County solutions to town problems

These rules create problems for small town fire chiefs. The town fire inspector and town police may be too busy fighting the fire to begin a timely investigation, or one might be off-Island, or fighting another fire at the same time. In small towns with volunteer fire departments, there may be ethical issues. For example, the fire town inspector might be the person who installed the heating system in the burned building or the electrician who wired it. So the choice is an outside inspector.

In the early 1980’s, Peter Martell of Oak Bluffs argued that fire investigation should be a county-wide project. He persuaded each of the Island fire chiefs to designate him as the town fire investigator.

West Tisbury Chief Manny Estrella early on saw the need for a larger team and pushed his fellow chiefs to create one. Since 2008, the 12-person team now includes a fire department investigator and a police officer from each town. Whenever there is a fire, several members of the team go to the scene and report to the incident commander (usually the chief).

There are still minor details to be worked out. Police are covered by insurance when they are called to another town for mutual aid, but there are questions about liability for fire inspectors working in another town. But Mr. Rogers says he is confident that these remaining issues will be resolved.

The members of the team meet several times a year for advanced training and to compare notes. An extra benefit is that the dozen members have collectively much more relevant expertise than a single town investigator would have. The volunteer firemen include electricians, builders, and heating contractors, among other trades. In Aquinnah, it’s Walter Delaney, fire, and Ryan Ruley, police; in Chilmark, David Norton, fire, and Jeff Day, police; Edgartown, Scott Ellis, fire, and Stephanie Immelt, police; Oak Bluffs: Tony Ferriera, fire, and Chris Wiggin, police, Tisbury, James Rogers, fire, and Mark Santon, police; West Tisbury, Peter Marzbanian, fire, and Matt Mincone, police.

An electrician by trade, Mr. Rogers, who supplied the information for this report, has been a volunteer firefighter in Tisbury since 1973. He was for many years the town wiring inspector. He has taken the fire academy course more than once, as well as other advanced training instruction in the field. From 1989 to 1996, he held the full-time position as executive secretary to the state board of examiners, which licenses electricians. The state fire marshal is an ex officio member of that board. Mr. Rogers’ job description included traveling all over the state doing fire investigations, work he still continues nationally as a consultant. He is a member of state and national associations of arson investigators, and he is currently completing a degree in fire science from the University of Maryland.