Professional Profile, Patrick Andler and Associates, Inc.

Blazing the Trail to Higher Standards in Fire Investigation

By Haley Freeman

Imagine being a 17-year-old boy, accused of a crime you didn’t commit, involving the death of 29 people. Imagine spending your life in prison, because the application of an inexact, forensic science convicted you. Who would ever come to your aid when the whole world believed you were the author of such a heinous crime?

The answer is one man, Patrick Andler. Andler was approached by the Arizona Justice Project to conduct a peer review of a case involving the 1970 conviction of Louis Taylor for the above-mentioned crime. Andler spent almost a year reviewing over 13,000 pages of evidence, pro bono. Using modern fire science methodology, he determined that the fire was accidental and that Taylor had been wrongfully convicted of arson and sentenced to life in prison.

On April 2, 2013, 59-year-old Taylor was released from prison aft er 42 years. The Taylor case demonstrates so poignantly how inadequate investigation of an already tragic event can result in more tragedy. Andler has spent his career improving and pioneering fire investigation standards, blazing a trail for those coming aft er him, so that travesties like this one will not continue to occur.

Sadly, Taylor’s story is not unique. Andler has been called as an expert in numerous fire cases where wrongful arson convictions have been made. Andler explains that “the fire sciences were little understood in the ‘70s.” In 1992, the National Fire Protection Association published NFPA 921, “to establish guidelines and recommendations for the safe and systematic investigation or analysis of fire and explosion incidents” (section 1.2.1). According to Andler, the industry is still evolving, and many fire investigators are still not following these standards.

Andler began his fire investigation career as an insurance claims investigator for Equifax in 1980. He was selected as one of two of the company’s investigators to be trained as specialists in fire investigation. Andler attended the California Fire Academy and numerous other fire seminars. He left Equifax to work for INS Investigation Bureau, a private fire investigation firm now known as EFI. In 1989, an ambitious Andler embraced the opportunity in this developing industry and began his own firm, Patrick A. Andler & Associates, Inc.

Andler’s partner of eight years, Dave Smith, spent 23 years serving with the Phoenix police department. Together, they possess decades of experience and numerous certifications in fire investigation. Andler is also a certified instructor for the National Association of Fire Investigators. He has investigated over 4,000 fires over the course of his career and is the only published author from Arizona about fire investigation. Andler is a nationally recognized speaker who is frequently asked to train professionals at insurance companies and law firms. He has lectured about fire investigation at Arizona State University, the Arizona Science Center, the Arizona Insurance Claims Association and the Las Vegas High Rise Association. Andler is also the creator of a product called the Hot Bag, “the first fire-resistant laundry bag, created to help contain spontaneous combustion fires and save lives and prevent property damage,” Andler explained.

Andler has an accelerant detection dog named Jack. The five-year-old Golden Labrador received his unique training at a facility in Texas. His handler, Thor Smith, accompanies Jack to fire scenes to help determine whether or not accelerants are present, pointing to a cause of arson. When Jack alerts that he has detected traces of an accelerant, he is taken out of the fire scene to play with his favorite toy, a purple, plastic bone. Samples are collected from the alerted area, placed in K-Pak evidence bags and then packed in metal cans for shipment to a certified lab for analysis. Jack is then reintroduced to the scene to search for other evidence.

Another extraordinary tool at Andler’s disposal is his five-acre test laboratory outside of Phoenix, where Andler and his team recreate fire scenarios. It is one of the only facilities of its kind in the United States. “We have what we refer to as two burn cells. A burn cell is a room that we construct using sheetrock. We bring furniture in to replicate just what a living room would look like, or a bedroom, or even a garage….Then we will videotape or photograph the room with furniture in there, with a microwave oven, with a stove, whatever scenario we want. Then we will burn the room and videotape it before, during and aft er. That allows a fire investigator, like myself, to go back into that room and see what it looked like before, during and aft er the fire….Doing this allows us to study the fire patterns, the fire dynamics involved, the importance of failure of materials like plastics or wood or metals,” Andler explained.

For the past 11 years, Andler has hosted a one-day fire investigation seminar at his test facility. He invites law enforcement officials, insurance investigators, attorneys and other fire investigators to witness various fire scenarios and learn about fire science from industry professionals like metallurgists and burn surgeons. “This year, I invited a speaker from the Arizona Justice Project so that he could talk about how we handled the Louis Taylor case,” said Andler. Average attendance is between 200 and 250 people.

Andler is committed to providing this education to his colleagues because there are so few hands-on training opportunities available to fire investigators. In addition, fewer resources are allocated to arson cases by law enforcement. “Arson is a Class 2 felony…up there with kidnapping and bank robbery. If the Bank of America gets robbed in downtown Phoenix, they are going to have about 40 FBI agents around….If there is an arson fire and an arson guy breaks in and destroys a business and a building at the cost of $1 million, how many investigators do you think will be involved in investigating that? Maybe one, maybe two, if you’re lucky. Law enforcement agencies have always looked at arson cases as being an insurance problem. It’s not. It’s a society problem,” Andler said.

DNA evidence is now commonly accepted by courts and is becoming an important tool in fire investigation. Amazingly enough, a fire scene may contain abundant sources of DNA. “What we look for as fire investigators is not only the origin and cause of a fire, but who is responsible for it. One way of doing it is by going through DNA lab analysis reports,” Andler said. Arson is oft en used to mask a homicide, where the perpetrator may have left his own blood or other bodily fluids behind. DNA can be obtained from saliva on cigarette butts, an item which could be used as an ignition source or merely dropped by the perpetrator. A sweaty handprint on the handle of a gas container left near the scene may yield DNA evidence. Andler and his team focus on searching for possible DNA evidence around doors, windows and items left close to the crime scene.

Andler stresses the importance of adequately qualifying fire investigation experts for use in legal cases. Attorneys “need to understand who they are hiring….Start by looking at their CV. You want to take a look at the cases they have worked on and the cases that they have testified in. There are a lot of fire investigators out there, but are they going to be able to take the stand and teach? My first career is as a fire investigator. My second career for 30-plus years is as a teacher….In the majority of my time, I am teaching the fire sciences to my clients. If you do not have an individual who can teach the fire sciences to a jury, you are not going to win,” said Andler.

Andler demonstrates the importance of skillfully teaching an audience in the courtroom. In 2008, he helped obtain a jury award of $42 million, one of the largest in Arizona history, in Mutuvi- Kavu v Electrolux Products. He describes this as a “classic David and Goliath story,” wherein two young brothers came home from school and were severely injured in the explosion of a defective kitchen stove. While the defense used their army of experts to present their case theory that the boys had used an accelerant and caused the fire themselves, Andler got leave of court to recreate the plaintiff s’ kitchen in the courtroom. He demonstrated every pattern of the fire for the jury, proving that it could only have occurred by failure of the stove. These are the skills that set Andler apart from his competition.

Over the course of his career, Andler has testified for both plaintiff s and defendants, splitting his representation about 60/40. His clients include attorneys, insurance companies, government agencies, utility companies and product manufacturers. Andler’s experience endows him with greater objectivity as a fire scientist and makes him bulletproof to his opposition.

Andler is passionate about using his expertise to help people. He has spent many years volunteering with the Arizona Burn Foundation and now serves as its chairman. The Maricopa County Burn Unit is the second busiest hospital for burn victims in the United States. The foundation is important to assisting many of the patients treated there. In addition, the foundation hosts Camp Courage, a one-week camp in Prescott, Ariz. every year for children who are burn survivors. It also partners with firefighters to conduct smoke detector walks, to check homes for working fire detectors and to educate children about burn and fire dangers.

“Statistically, every person will have at least one fire story to tell in their lifetime,” Andler said. He has devoted his career to elevating his profession by improving techniques for determining fire causation and advocating for strict practice guidelines and standards of scientific methodology. He hopes that his legacy will not only prevent fires, but protect the innocent and provide the means to identify crimes and hold the guilty accountable.

 

For more information, please visit  www.andlerfire.com.