MAXTON, N.C. (Oct. 16, 2012) -- Fire does not destroy all evidence; it just does a good job of hiding it. With that guidance in mind, Army special agents grabbed their gear and stepped into a room to begin their search.
Their target: the cause and area of origin of the fire, but this was no ordinary burn. The training was all part of the 200th Military Police Command's 2012 Annual Special Agent Training, or ASAT, exercise Sept. 20-30.
More than 200 military police and criminal investigation division, or CID, agents from across the U.S. Army and Army Reserve took part in the training exercise at a training center near Fort Bragg, N.C.
Joining the military personnel were civilian law enforcement from the U.S., Canada and Australia.
One of the training topics covered during ASAT was investigating a fire scene.
Army Reserve Special Agent Jeffrey R. Whitbeck, who is assigned to the 225th MP Detachment out of Phoenix, Ariz., and his fellow 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, very basic fire scene investigation techniques and training," said the 26-year Army Reserve veteran.
Whitbeck said the first step for special agents is to disprove the common misconception that fire will destroy all evidence.
Next, special agents must identify fire patterns and trace fire damage back to an area or point-of-origin.
Whitbeck, who is both a certified fire and fire explosion investigator, explained this during his brief, using examples from previous cases and his extensive civilian experience.
ASAT was designed by special agents for special agents. Whitbeck said most of the military participants have never worked a fire investigation.
"A lot of this is new training to them," Whitbeck said while watching agents work side-by-side with instructors.
"We don't expect them to be experts," said Whitbeck, a Wyoming native, who has conducted numerous arson and explosion investigations since 1998. "It's mostly so they have an exposure to what a fire scene looks like, what evidence can be important."
The knowledge is something Special Agent Alfonso Dorado, also with the 225th MP Det., believes will benefit him twofold.
"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. "Reserve Soldiers deploy just like active duty, so this [training] definitely helps me out."
Following the Whitbeck's briefing, participants were separated into three groups and taken 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."
Instructors used different accelerants for each and simulated intentional and accidental fires.
"We did these individual burns, then we bring the participants in, give them a quick briefing," said Whitbeck. "Then, they go in and conduct their investigation."
The practical exercise included witnesses, which participants interviewed for additional information or background for the investigation.
Participants weren't completely on their own 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," he said.
Whitbeck said he looks to see if participants understand some basic evidence that they might be looking for in a fire scene and are able to effectively communicate the findings back to instructors.
"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 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."