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Coffee County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) Director Allen Lendley, left, and Deputy Director of EMA Matt Aussiker are part of a recently formed five-member team dedicated to performing fire investigations for the area’s five volunteer fire departments. The other fire investigators are Manchester firefighters Jeremy Woods, Tyler Hickerson and Joey Bryant.

Coffee County now has a team dedicated to performing fire investigations for the area’s five volunteer fire departments. The responsibility of the group is to determine the cause and origin of each fire.

“We started the fire investigation program in October,” said Allen Lendley, director of Coffee County Emergency Management Agency (EMA). “We had been preparing for it, and we did the training in August and September in order to become fire investigators.”

In addition to Lendley, Deputy Director of EMA Matt Aussiker and Manchester firefighters Jeremy Woods, Tyler Hickerson and Joey Bryant are part of the team.

“We are doing all the fire investigation for all five county volunteer fire departments,” Lendley said. “And we assist Manchester as well.”

By state law, fire chiefs are responsible for determining the origin and cause of a fire, said Lendley.

“They can do it themselves or they can appoint fire investigators to do that,” Lendley said.

“We have worked with all the volunteer fire departments and have signed agreements that the chiefs have determined they want us to make that determination for them,” Lendley said.

The five county volunteer departments are Hickerson Station Volunteer Fire Department, Hillsboro Volunteer Fire Department, New Union Volunteer Fire Department, Summitville Volunteer Fire Department and North Coffee Volunteer Fire Department.

Before the new team of fire investigators was formed, deputies with the Coffee County Sheriff’s Department were tasked with the fire investigations.

“Prior to us, the sheriff’s department had a couple of folks that were trained,” Lendley said. “We still work together and they help us.”

The new arrangement will allow the deputies to focus entirely on their duties at the sheriff’s department.

 

Possible fire causes

“There are three different causes we look at,” Lendley said. “One is accidental – and most fires are accidental. Then there is the incendiary fire, which is a set fire or arson.”

When the building has been destroyed, the cause of the blaze remains undetermined.

“Undetermined is used a lot of times when the structure is burned beyond the ability to be investigated,” Lendley said.

The earlier the fire investigators arrive at the scene, the higher the chances for a definitive conclusion are. Ideally, they try would be on the scene while the firefighters are battling the flames, which allows the investigators to observe the fire as it burns. 

“That can help us determine a lot just by how the fire is burning,” Lendley said. “Then we investigate the fire after the fire is out … We utilize fire behavior and fire patterns to determine where the fire originated. We determine which way the fire moved.”

Depending on the case, the completion of an investigation may take from an hour to several days.

Determining the fire’s cause is very important.

If the fire is accidental, finding what sparked it may save lives in the future.

“If there is a pattern or a particular brand that’s causing fires, they will do a recall on it,” Lendley said. “It’s important so that products can be made safer.”

Since October, the team has investigated six fires. One of the incidents involved a fatality, and one was an incendiary fire.

“If it’s an arson, we obviously want to put those folks in jail because they are tearing up people’s property and putting firefighters and the occupants of the house at risk,” Lendley said.

“We only determine origin and cause, and it’s up to the law enforcement agency to prosecute,” Lendley said. “We pass the information to the sheriff’s department or the city police and they pursue the case from there. We would have to go to court and testify as to what we found, but they will have to pursue the suspect.”

All members of the team have completed extensive training.

The requirements for fire investigators include 10 online classes through CFITrainer.NET. The International Association of Arson Investigators offers fire investigator training and certification, and CFITrainer.Net is the association’s latest tool in providing training to fire investigators.

“Then you have to take a two-day fire investigations class for first responders at the Tennessee Fire Service and Codes Enforcement Academy,” Lendley said.

The academy is located in Bell Buckle.

“And then you have to apply and take a two-week fire investigator class at the Tennessee Fire Service and Codes Enforcement Academy,” he said.

Elena Cawley may be reached via email at ecawley@tullahomanews.com.