In the last year, the Office of the Fire Marshal (OFM) Fire Investigation Services team has benefitted from science research mentorships with young people enrolled in post-secondary education institutions. The following article highlights the students, their research and how their work has benefitted the OFM.
Jessica Piekny is the most recent student to have completed an internship with the OFM. Piekny was a student in the Forensic Science, Bachelor of Science program at the University of Toronto (UofT) Mississauga campus.
Throughout her internship, Greg Olson, OFM fire investigator, was her supervisor. Based on the research information she gathered working with Olson, she wrote ‘Decontamination of Tools during Fire Debris Collection.’ She presented this research paper to her peers and professors at the 17th Annual Forensic Science Day in mid-April.
The focus of Piekny’s research paper was to compare three different cleaning methods for a common fire investigation tool; the shovel. She wanted to determine the best way to prevent cross contamination during the collection of fire debris evidence. She collected her research information by testing the investigators’ cleaning methods; wiping the shovel down with a paper towel, rinsing with water followed by wiping with a paper towel, and rinsing with Palmolive dish soap in water followed by wiping with a paper towel. The results of the study demonstrated that it was possible to cause transfer during the sampling of fire debris when one tool is reused. Using the soap and water mixture appeared to be the most effective cleaning method in limiting cross contamination.
Greg Olson, OFM Fire Investigator and Jessica Piekny
The OFM benefitted from her findings by having research to use in criminal court proceedings with respect to cross-contamination issues with our tools.
The Forensic Science, Bachelor of Science program at U of T Mississauga is the first of its kind in Canada. It is designed to provide the student with an understanding of scientific analyses, theories, laboratory skills, applications, and field techniques -- while allowing the student to emphasize one particular area in greater detail such as forensic anthropology, forensic biology, forensic chemistry, forensic computer science and forensic psychology to name a few. Those who study forensic science are able to obtain employment providing physical evidence in a modern legal context. It is best defined as “science in service to the courts.”
Kevin Pahor was another student to have completed a mentorship with the OFM’s Fire Investigation Services. And again the mentorship was a win-win experience for all. The OFM was able build on its knowledge of fire chemistry of accelerants and deceased individuals in fatal fire settings; and Pahor, was able to obtain the research he needed to write his thesis and complete the Applied Bioscience Masters program at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT).
As part of his studies at UOIT, Pahor was a member of the Decomposition Chemistry Research Group, a small group of like-minded students who were being supervised by Dr. Shari Forbes. Dr. Forbes was an Associate Professor in Forensic Science and Chemistry and held a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Decomposition Chemistry. Along with the CRC program, Dr. Forbes research was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Canada Foundation for Innovation, Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation, and the Canadian Police Research Centre.
The aim of the Decomposition Chemistry Research Group was to advance the knowledge base relating to decompositional processes than can be utilized in a forensic setting. Decomposition chemistry investigates the chemical processes involved in soft and hard tissue decomposition. The Group’s research focused on taphonomic agents (taphonomy is the study of decaying organisms and how they become fossilized) and their impact on these chemical processes in a southern Ontario environment. Research was conducted both in the field, at a unique geo-forensic research facility, and in a state-of-the-art decomposition chemistry laboratory at UOIT. Through their research, the Group collaborated with law enforcement agencies, government laboratories, industry, and other universities both within Canada and internationally.
To advance the aim of the Group’s research, Pahor’s thesis topic was on the effect of accelerants on skin and in the lungs of deceased individuals in post fire situations. His thesis research focused on whether vapours from gasoline (taphonomic agents), when utilized to cover the crime of homicide, could be detected within the body of the deceased. It was a topic that would benefit the OFM in its role of investigating fire fatalities.
The overall success of this research identified the presence of gasoline in the lung tissue and heart blood of the animals that inhaled the vapours where the pre-deceased animals present at the time of the fire, posted negative results. The impact of this research is significant when addressing issues in criminal court proceedings as to whether or not an individual was alive at the time of the pouring of the accelerant.
For Pahor, the OFM mentorship experience extended over a three-year period – long enough for Pahor to obtain the amount of research information he needed to complete his paper. A grant assisted him with expenses for food and travel all across Ontario with Greg Olsen, OFM fire investigator. Again Olson took the lead mentoring Pahor, inviting him to fire scenes and facilitating live fire exercises in support of Pahoa’s research. These exercises were performed with the assistance of members of the Malahyde Fire Service, Springwater Fire Service and Strathroy-Caradoc Fire Service.
Once the hard work and inter-agency co-operation work was completed, Pahor, Olson and Dr. Forbes co-authored an abstract entitled ‘Post-mortem detection of gasoline residues in lung tissue and heart blood of fire victims.’ It was printed in the January 2013 issue of the International Journal of Legal Medicine. The article summarized the research that had been conducted with the OFM and was the shortened version of Pahor’s Master’s thesis. The article was printed much to the benefit of the international community and forensic specialists within the fire investigation and policing professions. To learn more about the UOIT’s Decomposition Chemistry Research Group, visit http://faculty.uoit.ca/forbes/.
Information compiled from Chris Williams, Assistant Deputy Fire Marshal of Fire Investigation Services, Greg Olson, OFM Fire Investigator and Wayne Romaine, OFM Fire Investigations Supervisor.