Fire officials discussed improvements in technology, courtroom testimony, industry trends and more this week during the 37th annual East Texas Arson Investigators Association conference in Longview.
Gregg County Fire Marshal Mark Moore said the conference has been in Longview since it was established.
“The purpose of the conference is to help the investigators get their continuing education hours as a requirement for the Texas Commission on Fire Protection and the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement,” Moore said.
Most fire marshals are dually certified, Moore said. Marshall Fire Department Fire Chief and Arson Investigator Reggie Cooper is president, and Moore is vice president of the association.
More than 80 investigators participated in the conference at the Hilton Garden Inn Tuesday through Thursday, coming from departments in East Texas and as far as the Dallas-Fort Worth area. East Texas Arson Investigators Association members are made up of professional fire/arson investigators, insurance investigators and private investigators. The group aims to provide resources, information, community and support.
Cooper said education and keeping up to date is key for investigators as well as efforts to educate the public.
“It also brings us up to date on the newer technology that is in fire investigation,” he added. “It’s ever evolving. We reach out to different experts in different fields when it comes to mapping, fire dynamics, testimonies in a courtroom, these kinds of things.”
Fire marshals and arson investigators work closely with district attorneys’ offices, prosecutors and law enforcement through the course of an investigation.
“I always tell people, if you want to get into this business, the fire investigation is just a small portion of it,” Moore said. “The real nuts and bolts of the whole driving the investigation is the documentation that you have to do to help with prosecution.”
“Everything has to be proven,” Cooper said, adding that learning how to properly keep documentation and processes is important because it can be used in court.
Moore and Cooper said fire investigations have evolved greatly and improved significantly since 9/11. The focus of investigations is on scientific methodology.
“Meticulous steps have to be taken,” Cooper said. “In the old days, people would say, ‘This guy did it.’ Well, how do you know? We got 20 years’ experience, and I just know he did it. People went to prison on that. That’s not right. People falsely went to prison on that sometimes. A lot of people don’t realize what all goes into our investigation.”
Moore said it is common for arsons to increase when violent crime increases as it is a violent crime. Financial hardships can also increase arson cases, Cooper said.
Fire marshals, along with arson investigators, blend fire service work with law enforcement, according to Cooper.
“We have to protect our citizens,” he said. “What people might not understand is we are connected in more ways than one. When we put together this conference, we invite DAs’ offices, prosecutors, federal counterparts, insurance people and we work in conjunction with one another.”
Cooper said it is important for the public to know how closely departments support each other. He explained that even a small volunteer department with one investigator is able to rely on surrounding departments and agencies when needed.
Moore used Tuesday’s White Oak oil truck and pump fire as an example. About 11 departments and agencies responded to help.
“We pulled in resources from the whole Gregg County area,” Moore said.
Much like the fire service in general, East Texas is in need of more investigators to fill in spots left by retirees.
“If you look around this room right here, there’s more gray hair or no hair,” Moore said, gesturing to Cooper.
“When it comes in, it’s gray,” Cooper said, laughing.
Moore said he spent about 20 years working on the fire suppression or firefighters side of the industry before becoming an investigator.
“This is something that I have always wanted to do,” Moore said. “Right now, the shortage of personnel for fire suppression side directly affects our investigations side.”
Moore and Cooper are passionate about helping equip local investigators with the knowledge and resources they need as well as recruit young people into service.
“God made us all for different purposes and we’re purposed to do the things that we do,” Cooper said. “We’ve got to continue to spark the passion for new generations to come.”