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Better than books: Apartments provide real-world arson training grounds

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SBI Agent Jeremy Crowder gives a demonstration Thursday with Hampton, a K-9 trained to detect accelerants at the scene of a fire. The demo was part of fire investigation training at the former Toisnot Heights Apartments.
SBI Agent Jeremy Crowder gives a demonstration Thursday with Hampton, a K-9 trained to detect accelerants at the scene of a fire. The demo was part of fire investigation training at the former Toisnot Heights Apartments.
Contributed Photo | Matt Shaw, City of Wilson
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While the heat has dissipated, charred furniture and the smell that hangs in the air reveal the unmistakable signs of a devastating residential fire. Yet the fires that gutted four apartments aren’t leaving anyone homeless because the realistic situation is part of training for fire investigators.

“It is a hands-on class versus being in a classroom and seeing a video or slides from a fire,” said Wilson Fire/Rescue Deputy Chief Kevin Hubbard. “They can touch it, see it, smell it, take their own photos and report on their findings.”

The four-day Essentials of Fire Investigation class brought fire and law enforcement personnel from around the state to learn about the science of arson, evidence collection and so forth. The class served as foundational education for investigators looking to get their state certification and continuing education for staff who are working toward recertification.

“Another unique part of this class is the caliber of instructors we got,” Hubbard said. “We had current and retired ATF agents from different offices, an SBI agent and his accelerant detection K-9 was here and we had a representative from the state attorney general’s office who taught the legal and motive section of the course.”

To provide the best training possible, Wilson Fire/Rescue Services partnered with Wilson Community College and received donations of materials in the apartments to be burned.

“There are four apartments and we set fires in each of the bedrooms and living rooms as well as a couple of the kitchens,” Hubbard said about staging of the training scenarios. “The difference might be the location of the fire, the material used to start it and the different techniques we used to pull the fire from the front to the back.”

Class members spent Thursday morning at the former Toisnot Heights Apartments, collecting evidence and watching as K-9 Hampton, an accelerant detection dog with the State Bureau of Investigation, demonstrated his skills. The class ends today as the members report their findings and discuss the scenarios.

“The ATF was a huge help because while we had the vision and the college had the funding and appropriations, ATF provided the instructors and additional resources to make this happen,” Hubbard said.

Among the students were seven Wilson firefighters and four Wilson police personnel.

“When people think of a fire investigation, they think only about the fire department, but when there is a fire that is suspected to be arson or some other criminal element, it is a partnership between the Wilson Fire/Rescue Services and the Wilson Police Department,” Hubbard said. “We have a fire investigation task force that is made up of fire and police. Fire investigators determine the cause and origin, but the criminal aspect is handled by the police department.”

For example, there was a large fire at Liberty Warehouse in February of 2008 that required firefighters from every city station to fight it as well as fire and police personnel working together to prosecute those responsible for setting it.

“There were several agencies and not just local ones — such as the SBI and ATF — that helped with that investigation,” Hubbard said. “And all those agencies were represented here again today, but because we don’t always have the opportunity to work together, a class like this makes it easier to work together in the future.”

bhandgraaf@wilsontimes.com | 265-7821

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