Ohio Lab Devoted to Analysis of Arson Clues
What is believed to be the first laboratory in the world devoted to the analysis of arson and bombing evidence was dedicated in Columbus, Ohio, on May 10, 1974 by Governor John J. Gilligan. In announcing its availability to law enforcement agencies throughout the state, Governor Gilligan noted the enormous losses due to arson and bombings in Ohio. In 1970, 7800 cases of arson resulted in damage and destruction costing over $7 million and 200 bombings costing $2 million.
Convictions for these two crimes were difficult to get. All too often, when local law enforcement officials were able to salvage evidence from a fire that might lead to a suspect, they did not have access to the sophisticated and expensive equipment necessary to analyze the evidence. The only place they could turn was the state crime laboratory, which was so swamped with requests for analysis of all kinds of criminal evidence that analysis of arson evidence took a minimum of six months.
Using funds from a General Assembly appropriation to the Ohio Commerce Department and grants from the Law Enforcement Assistance Act, the state fire marshal began in 1972 to equip the lab with a gas chromatograph, differential thermal analyzer, stereobinocular microscopes, a spectroscopic analyzer, strip chart recorders, and other analytical instrumentation. A forensic chemist was hired to operate the lab.
In June 1973, a pilot program of evidence analysis was begun with the lab accepting a limited number of cases from various counties. In 70 percent of the cases referred to the lab, evidence of arson or bombing was found. The overwhelming success of the trial period won over the additional support necessary to hire two additional chemists and to outfit the lab completely.
Since then, a two-part program to find and prosecute arsonists has been implemented. The first part of the program involves making the arson lab services more efficient and accessible to all Ohio fire departments and law enforcement agencies. The gas chromatograph in the lab has been fully automated, giving 24-hour analytical service. Evidence submitted to the lab is being processed in a week to 10 days, rather than in the six to 10 months that were formerly required. The equipment is so sensitive that it can, for example, identify the octane, the brand, and often the station from which gasoline was obtained—all from a sample no bigger than a drop.
Portable chromatograph used
A mobile arson laboratory completely outfitted for on-the-scene evidence analysis is taking the Columbus lab’s analytical capability right into the field. In addition, the state fire marshal’s 10 arson investigators will soon be equipped with portable gas chromatographs enabling them to determine which petroleum products are in a sample taken from a fire or bombing site.
The lab’s success in its analysis of evidence is being reflected in an increased conviction rate. In 1973, 522 pieces of evidence in 168 cases were submitted to the lab. In 164 cases, evidence of arson was found. Of the cases that have come to trial, 30 percent have ended in convictions. The fire marshal anticipates an even higher conviction rate in future cases. Shortages of money and manpower, coupled with lack of opportunity for training have prevented an even greater increase in the ability of law enforcement agencies to identify suspects.
All fire fighters trained
To improve suspect identification, the second part of the program was designed to train all of Ohio’s 44,000 fire fighters to recognize and to handle evidence from fires of unknown or suspicious causes. A pilot training program was initiated by State Fire Marshal David A. Lucht last September 29 in Clark County, where 17 of the 18 fire departments are volunteer departments. Instruction is based on guidelines suggested in “America Burning,” the 1972 report of the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control, chaired by Richard Bland. After the Clark County project is completed, evaluated, and refined, instruction will be given to fire fighters in the remaining 87 Ohio counties.
In addition, last October 16, Governor Gilligan presided at groundbreaking ceremonies for the new State Fire Training Academy. Open to all of Ohio’s fire fighters, the new school will have a complete arson training laboratory to instruct fire personnel in finding, analyzing, and then making use of evidence found at a fire or bombing site.
Lucht has set two goals for the lab for the next year. The first is to add a computer to the lab, fully automating all of the equipment. Analysis would go on around the clock with results recorded on a continuous printout. Second, he will work with fire personnel to identify and prosecute suspects. Accurate identification through use of arson lab analysis will, it is hoped, deter would-be arsonists who previously were almost assured of escaping prosecution. As Governor Gilligan concluded during the lab’s dedication, “We are sounding a clear warning to those who would destroy, injure and kill by fire or bombing. □ □