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Fire marshals learning the trade

July 26, 2002|by EDWARD MARSHALL

edwardm@herald-mail.com

Two members of the 35th graduating class of the Western Maryland Police Training Academy have already had a chance to put their training to the test.

Deputy Fire Marshals Jamie Rodeheaver and Jason Mowbray graduated June 24 and are part of the team investigating the two-alarm blaze that erupted in an old warehouse complex on Security Road July 13.

"They say arson is probably the most difficult crime to investigate," said Mowbray, 24, of Barton, Md.

Mowbray and Rodeheaver are based in Hagerstown and serve Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties.

Working as a team is something to which they already have grown accustomed.

The two men had a "you-scratch-my-back-and-I'll-scratch-yours" relationship when they were roommates during their six-month stay at the academy.

"It was very challenging," said Rodeheaver, 32, of McHenry, Md. "Academics were never one of my strong points. Jason was able to help tutor me and I helped him with the physical part. It was really a team effort."

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Although they admit they have different strengths, their reasons for wanting to become fire marshals are similar.

Both have friends and family within law enforcement and the fire department, making it difficult to choose one career path over the other.

The duties of a deputy fire marshal, however, have a hybrid quality that attracted them to the position.

"Firefighting has always been a great passion of mine, and I've always enjoyed law enforcement ... it combines the two things I love to do most," Rodeheaver said. "It's really the best of both worlds."

For Mowbray, the deciding factor came after his pursuit of degrees in criminal justice and fire science at Allegany and Montgomery colleges.

"I've always been the kind of person to soak up a lot of training, kind of like a big sponge," Mowbray said.

When firefighters are unable to determine the cause of a fire or suspect arson, fire marshals are called in to investigate - an area where the two deputies' academy training comes in handy.

The scene of a fire is much like a crime scene. The entire area surrounding the incident is sealed off, witnesses are interviewed and evidence is collected.

But in most cases, the evidence has been through a lot, including being engulfed in flames and doused with several hundred gallons of highly pressurized water.

"The fire itself will destroy a lot of the evidence," Mowbray said. "In the process of actually putting the fire out, water will cause a lot of damage. The firefighting effort also will cause a lot of damage to the building itself. There's nothing you can do about that."

Investigators instead must put together a puzzle that has pieces that are missing, destroyed or can only be found through witnesses or specially trained K-9 units.

"It takes specialized training," Rodeheaver said. "The biggest challenge is determining the point of origin of the fire. You have to understand fire patterns, the amount of heat that the fire emanates and you have to pay special attention to details."

Investigators form a perimeter around the scene, slowly moving in and collecting as many of the pieces as they can find.

For Mowbray, this represents one of the things he enjoys most about being a deputy fire marshal.

"It might sound corny, but I would say that there are so many aspects of this that are really challenging, and I enjoy that challenge," Mowbray said.

For Rodeheaver, one of the most satisfying aspects is something that occurs before a fire even takes place.

"If I can teach a child to dial 911 in an emergency and that call saves a life, that's a reward that can't be beat," Rodeheaver said.

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