MOUNT VERNON — Major fires, such as the one this week in downtown Mount Vernon, require major investigations and the state-of-the-art mobile command post utilized by the State Fire Marshal’s Office plays a big role in those investigations.
Tim Spradlin, chief of investigations for the State Fire Marshal’s Office, said the command post is called MIRV, for major incident response vehicle.
“We use it for long-term incidents like this major fire,” he said, “where we’re going to have to be on site for more than a day or two. It carries a lot of tools and equipment, plus the interior gives us a place to run our command of the operation and to write reports.”
MIRV features a weather station, closed-circuit television so investigators can look at the fire scene from inside, a power generator, a radio tower which telescopes to 70 feet, and a digital convertor so the investigators can monitor what local television stations are saying about the fire. It also carries some forensics investigation equipment for the laboratory staff.
“If our lab staff comes out like they did this week,” said Spradlin, “we keep some sample evidence and collection supplies on hand, such as litmus paper for testing water.”
The vehicle is also equipped with a portable tent and cots and the investigative team could potentially live out of it for up to seven days if other local resources are not available.
The multiple communications capability of MIRV is probably the most important feature of the truck.
“We’re on the MARCS, statewide radio system, which allows us to communicate with any other state law enforcement agency and most fire departments in Ohio,” he said. “MIRV has a radio inter-operability system that allows us to link by computer and communications equipment multiple different radio systems — VHF, UHF, 400 megahertz, 800 megahertz. We used that here to link the fire marshal, federal ATF, local firefighters and others. This unit allows us to link all those people together so we can all talk to each other. And regarding inter-operability — we learned in 2000 in Xenia when tornados hit, and the rest of the world learned it in 2001 in New York City — you’ve got to be able to bring multiple agencies together and communicate to work on major disasters.”
The communications piece is a big one, Spradlin said, because investigating fires is a team effort.
“No single agency has every thing needed to do everything,” he said. “We are very much about building relationships, working together and getting the job done. ... This fire was a huge major fire. We came to help the local fire department and we needed help with it. That’s why we brought ATF in. They not only bring a lot of other fire investigations and interview specialists, they bring engineers and technical specialists to help us with structural stability and things like that. It is a team sport. I say that all the time — it’s a team sport. You have local officials with their expertise at their level, you’ve got fire investigators, you’ve got police detectives, and you’ve got my guys to assist. When we get something really large, we have a lot of resources. Not only the ATF, but we work with the Ohio Department of Insurance, we work with the Bureau of Criminal Investigations, we work with [the Ohio State Highway Patrol], and we work with [Drug Enforcement Agency], because a lot of arson also involves drug crime.”
Spradlin said the investigations bureau is actually a police department within the state fire marshal’s office. “We are detectives who specialize in fire, arson and explosion investigation. The investigators are actually police officers. This is very much forensic science. It is not at all like television. CSI is a TV show. It has nothing to do with reality.”
“Any fire investigation involves technical forensic science,” Spradlin continued. “We specialize in two things. My guys are expert at fire investigation which again is technical in forensic science. If we determine that the fire was incendiary, which means somebody started it, that’s the crime of arson, then we switch modes to detective police officers because my team is also very good at interviews, interrogations and prosecuting that crime. ... They’re the best in Ohio in producing convictions for arson, a tough crime to prove. Our arrest and conviction rate is more than twice the national average.”
Besides fire and arson investigations, Spradlin’s unit investigates explosions and bombings. MIRV therefore has a GPS-based forensics mapping unit on board which helps map debris fields and also, with computer assistance, creates three-dimensional models of what the building looked like before it blew up.