PCFD partners with state forensics department
by Kenny Farmer
PELL CITY – The Fire Department partnered with the Alabama Forensics Department Wednesday to conduct a “real world” experiment during a controlled burn of a condemned house on 8th Avenue North.

The Forensics Department collected a variety of samples that will give them an opportunity to look at an “all inclusive picture” of evidence taken from a fire.

Andrea Headrick, chemistry discipline chief for the State Forensics Lab, said the opportunity to be around for a controlled burning of a house is beneficial because the State Forensics Department normally arrives after a fire has occurred. This type of data collection allows them to identify ignitable liquids before and after a fire.

Positive samples were placed throughout the structure, including gasoline, lamp oil, mineral spirits and lighter fluid. Neutral samples came from debris in which ignitable samples were not used. Both positive and negative samples were collected from the house following the controlled burn.

Headrick said another advantage of this type of experiment is the fact that older materials can be collected and studied.

“You can’t simulate what you’re going to find in a house fire,” she said. “If you’re looking at this house here that’s probably been here for 30 years, we have materials from construction from over that time period. So I’m not looking at vinyl flooring that I can buy today, I’m looking at stuff that was bought 30 years ago. It matters because different materials were manufactured differently and it’s going to give us different patterns.”

Headrick said that after a fire, it is much harder to tell what was in a house because “if it’s burned, you don’t know what it is.”

The Forensics Department was assisted by PerkinElmer, a company that builds scientific instruments for the purpose of analysis. PerkinElmer is responsible for building significant portions of the Hubble Telescope.

“What we’re going to do is analyze samples for the state from this burn,” said Jesse Hines, LCMS (Liquid Chromotography Mass Spectrometry) project specialist for PerkinElmer. “Then we’ll try to see if there are ways we can enhance the results.”

Hines said PerkinElmer would use a DSA Tof, a $300,000 piece of equipment, to “see what kinds of different things we can see in the samples that you can’t see otherwise with the conventional system. We’re adding more high tech instrumentation to try to answer more questions.”

Hines said PerkinElmer’s analysis would try to determine if ignitable fluids could actually show up the same as other debris, such as burning vinyl. He said if there is a mixture from different compounds, PerkinElmer has the equipment to separate those mixtures out “at very low levels.”

“It’s adding a new capability that didn’t exist,” Hines said.

Lt. Tim Kurzejeski said Wednesday’s controlled burn was important to the Pell City Fire Department as well, because firefighters, especially new ones, need to be able to step back and see what is going on outside a burning house.

“You learn just as much by watching fire progression and growth from the outside,” he said. “There’s beneficial training inside a house, but there’s just as much beneficial training outside a house.”

Kurzejeski said firefighters need to know the dangers that are present, not just from the interior of a burning home, but from the entire structure and surrounding area as well.

Contact Kenny Farmer at kfarmer@dailyhome.com.

© 2012