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Technology is catching up with arsonists.

Sophisticated modeling programs are helping arson investigators better understand how and where fires start in buildings. Knowing how fires spread gives investigators clues as to whether blazes are intentionally set.

"The art of arson investigation was slow to develop until the last seven to 10 years," said Barry W. Slotter, an Atlanta-based fire investigator for the law firm of Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi L.L.P. As computerized tools have been developed to help determine the cause of fires, well-informed investigators are making it harder for fire-starters to get away, he added.

Mr. Slotter explained that the latest computer modeling programs can detail the properties of burning materials and show how fires progress through specific structures. The data gives investigators a wealth of information that can help determine whether a fire was purposely started.

The models "are getting more into the dynamics of fire, how it propagates throughout a structure, so that we have a better understanding of its properties," Mr. Slotter said.

Knowing how long a fire takes to progress from one stage to the next can give investigators a good idea of when a fire started. If that information doesn't jibe with a property owner's explanation of how the fire started or details on his or her whereabouts, red flags go up.

If a witness saw the property owner at the premises around the time investigators believe the fire started, for example, closer scrutiny could reveal that the fire was set.

Evolving computer technology has made it easier for fire investigators and insurers to do their jobs from their desktops.

"The computer code for the models is now in a form that makes it easy to do in the PC rather than on a mainframe," explained Philip Crombie Jr., senior engineering specialist with Travelers Property Casualty Corp. in Hartford, Conn.

Much of Travelers' work in detecting arson and other causes of fire is done at its Loss Prevention & Engineering Laboratory in Windsor, Conn. The lab uses state-of-the art technology and works closely with the insurer's claims personnel and investigators to determine how fires started.

"The work today involves a lot of technology and science," he said. "We spend a lot of time looking at the item that first ignited, whether it was a toaster or a couch or a particular piece of equipment."

Data such as heat release rates can help investigators determine whether there was "enough energy in that item to cause the fire to spread."

Modeling provides information as to how a fire should spread through a building based on room configuration, furnishings, size and other factors, Mr. Crombie noted.

One of the most ambitious projects aimed at catching arsonists is being developed by American Re-Insurance Co. Teaming with federal and private fire prevention agencies, the reinsurer is developing a virtual reality program on CD-ROM that will be used to train fire investigators.

It's not the glove-and-helmet style of virtual reality program, but a "quick time" program that seamlessly meshes hundreds of photos and allows the users to immerse themselves in a fire scene, explained Joseph Toscano, vp and fire investigation specialist with American Re in Hartford, Conn.

When the program is ready for release, probably early next year, users will be challenged by the computer to use "best practices" in investigating a computerized fire, Mr. Toscano explained. "The computer tracks their progress and tells them where their deficiencies are."

When mistakes are made, a tutorial section has the correct procedures and walks the user through the proper process. Users then go back to the computerized fire and finish the investigation.

Another section of the program contains reference information for fire investigators. Mr. Toscano pointed out that users can call up information on a range of topics -- the effects of heat on concrete, for example -- that will help them determine the cause and characteristics of a fire.

The program will be provided free to police and fire agencies, insurers and others involved in fire investigation.

American Re already has available a 112-minute videotape used to train arson investigators. The video is a re-enactment of an actual case that covers the investigation of a suspicious fire and ends with a courtroom hearing in the case.

Accompanying the video are 230 pages of information investigators can use, including a checklist that can be used on the scene or at a desk to help with their investigations.

Even as they are armed with sophisticated software programs, fire investigators still rely on the quaint old art of reading manuals to stay updated on their techniques. Mr. Slotter pointed out that fire investigators also use the National Fire Protection Assn. guide titled Standard 921. Published in 1995, it is used by most investigators, he said.

"It contains all types of information," Mr. Slotter pointed out, emphasizing that "it is a guide, not a standard, for fire investigators to improve their skills."

The guide is in its third edition, the most recent one published several weeks ago.

Kirk Hansen, director of claims at the Alliance of American Insurers in Downers Grove, Ill., pointed out that regardless of who is responsible, arson remains an expensive problem.

"Arson costs the country $2 billion a year in property damage," he said. "Over 100,000 buildings per year are torched intentionally."

But instead of profits, the motive in many arson fires is a cheap thrill.

"A lot of people have the image of an arsonist pouring gas on a tenement apartment building," said Mr. Hansen. While such for-profit crimes sometimes occur, it is more likely that an arsonist is a kid, he said.

Research culled by the Insurance Information Institute from a number of sources shows that 52% of arsonists who are arrested are under 18. Their motives usually are to vandalize property and enjoy the sight of a burning building, the research notes.

Insurers and investigators are finding that policyholders rarely commit arson.

"Arson for profit is very small," said Jay S. Williams, vp-corporate claims investigation division at CNA Financial Corp. in Chicago. With the economy on an upswing in recent years, fewer business owners have had incentive to torch their businesses, he added.

"When I got into this business, America was burning," Mr. Williams said. "It's on the decline," he said of arson-for-profit fires. "It's not as great a problem, at least in our experience."

Other insurers agree.

"We've been very fortunate not to have many fires attributable to arson over the years," said Joanne Crowley, subrogation recovery supervisor at HSB Industrial Risk Insurers in Hartford, Conn.

Mr. Crombie of Travelers pointed out that even with all the technology to help determine the cause of fires, if arson is discovered, "the most difficult piece is finding who might be responsible."

Models will reveal how a fire started but can't alone say whether it was done on purpose, he explained.

"The investigator is really the most important tool. They cause all the rest of the tools to come into play.'