MAXTON, N.C. – Fire does not destroy all evidence; it just does a pretty good job of hiding it.
With that guidance in mind, the agents grabbed their gear, and stepped into the room to begin their search. Their target, the cause and area of origin of the fire. But this was no ordinary burn, this was all part of the 200th Military Police Command’s 2012 Annual Special Agent Training in Maxton, N.C.
More than 200 military police and Criminal Investigation Division agents from across the U.S. Army and Army Reserve took part in the training exercise, held at the Gryphon Group’s Fort Bragg Combat Training Center from Sept. 20 to 30. Joining the agents and MPs were civilian law enforcement personnel from the U.S., Canada and Australia.
One of the specific training topics covered during ASAT was investigating a fire scene.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jeffrey R. Whitbeck, with the 225th MP Detachment out of Phoenix, and his instructors focused on providing the trainees with a basic understanding of working such a scene.
“What we provided them was a brief introduction to fire cause and origin investigation,” said Whitbeck, who has served in the Army Reserve for 26 years. “Very basic fire scene investigation techniques and training.”
Disproving common misconceptions was the first step, including the aforementioned assumption that fire destroys all evidence.
Most of the participants at ASAT had minimal experience working such scenes.
“The majority of CID agents have not, both on the Reserve and active-duty side, so a lot of this is new training to them,” said Whitbeck.
“We don’t expect them to be experts. It’s mostly so they have an exposure to what a fire scene looks like, what evidence can be important,” said the Wyoming native, who has conducted arson and explosion investigations since 1998.
The knowledge is something Sgt. Alfonso Dorado, also with the 225th MP Det., believes will benefit him.
“This is giving me tools for my civilian and Army job,” said Dorado, a White Plains, N.Y., native who works for the Prince William County Police Department. “Reservists deploy just like active duty, so this (training) definitely helps me out.”
Following Whitbeck’s briefing, participants were separated into three groups and taken outside to a range with small trailers containing obvious fire damage.
“We (cadre) set each one of these fires,” said Whitbeck. “We had specific goals of what we were going to do when we set these fires.”
They used different accelerants for each fire and simulated intentional and accidental fires.
“We did these individual burns, then we brought the participants in, gave them a quick briefing, then they went in and conducted their investigation,” said Whitbeck.
The practical exercise includes witnesses, which participants can interview for additional information or background for the investigation. But participants weren’t left completely alone during the exercise. Whitbeck and his instructors answered questions and assessed participant’s actions.
“We’re just looking to make sure they’re understanding what fire patterns we taught them in class,” said Whitbeck.
“When they’re done, we get the whole group back together in class and we have each team brief us on what they came up with,” he added.
“Then we show them the video of the fire (we set) and that they just investigated, so they can actually see where the fire started to help them understand how they did on the investigation.”
It takes many years and a lot of training to become proficient at fire scene investigation, but Whitbeck hopes the training at ASAT will provide this year’s participants with the basic knowledge needed to approach such scenes.
“Again, it’s to give them an exposure so if they get sent out to a fire scene and there’s nobody there to help them, they’ll have enough information to help them through the scene.”