‘It’s a lot more efficient’: MFD takes new teamwork approach when investigating fires

‘Fire Investigation Team’ new this year

MADISON, Wis. – The Madison Fire Department has a new team devoted to investigating the origin of fires with the hope that it not only makes investigations more efficient, but helps protect firefighters, as well.

“What I love about my job is the teamwork of it,” said Kara Nelson, an apparatus engineer and fire investigator with the Madison Fire Department.

Now teamwork is playing a bigger role in the department’s fire investigation.

“It’s like a puzzle you have to put together,” Nelson said.

“You’re getting more heads on scene, more eyes on scene,” Lt. Eric Mills said. “You’re able to talk and communicate with each other and challenge each other’s conclusions.”

Added in January, the Fire Investigation Team (FIT) is made up of 21 firefighters trained in fire investigation across three different shifts. Mills said he helps lead the team, and at any given time, a team of four can respond to a scene, with two satellite firefighters being available as well if need be.

“It’s a lot more efficient,” Nelson said. “Another thing that’s good is they can bounce ideas off each other.”

Nelson said the way the department used to operate involved a lot more individual work. Three fire investigators on different shifts often worked alone to figure out how a fire started and spread.

“They were tasked with a lot,” she said. “They had to conduct interviews of all the witnesses, the 911 caller. They had to process the scene, document the scene with diagrams and photographs.”

Spreading the duties out among the team cuts the amount of time investigators spend on scene, which limits exposure to potentially cancer-causing materials.

“It’s going to be better for the community because we’re going to finish our investigation faster, and a lot of times if insurance is involved, then our customers are going to get paid out sooner,” Nelson said. “It’s also better for the health of the department and the people that work as investigators.”

Nelson also said it’s important to determine why a fire started “so we can educate our community to prevent them in the future.”

Mills said that can possibly lead to recalls of items such as faulty appliances and help figure out if there are any hazards for the rest of the community.

Madison Fire Department investigations in the past have uncovered the potential danger of exposed 9-volt batteries in a junk drawer and a technique used by sushi restaurants that caused separate fires across the state.

With the help of police and other agencies, Madison fire officials have also gotten to the bottom of arson, and in the case of a house explosion on Madison’s southwest side in 2017, an attempt to cover up the murder of Lee Anne Pirus.

Since FIT began, the team has responded to eight significant fires, determining six to be accidental. Investigators are still looking into two fires, including one downtown on N. Franklin earlier this month.

“We’re new and just going to keep getting better and more efficient as we go forward,” Nelson said.