Finding the Truth in Flames

by David Goddard September 15, 2017

A building lies in ruins, its smoky shell all that remains. As firefighters turn their attention from battling the blaze to figuring out what caused it, their first call goes out to . . . an electrical engineer? It might seem an odd place to start, but when that engineer is UT’s David Icove, it makes perfect sense.

Icove, the UL Professor of Practice in the Tickle College of Engineering’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, isn’t just an expert in fire forensics—he’s the expert.

He was less than a decade removed from finishing his PhD in engineering science and mechanics (one of three UT degrees he earned) when he noticed a gap in education about fire forensics. At the time, no one had taken an all-encompassing approach to fire investigations. So in 1983, he and John DeHaan cowrote the book Kirk’s Fire Investigation. With DeHaan having retired in 2016, Icove is now the lead author.

“We wrote that book as a way of spreading techniques and ideas we’d encountered during investigations,” says Icove, who has worked at the FBI and as a federal agent with the Tennessee Valley Authority. “You never know when you might be able to provide a new perspective that helps someone crack a case.”

The book, now in its seventh edition, has been adopted the world over as a definitive source for investigators. While such a successful book would be enough cause for some to rest on their laurels, Icove has continued contributing to the field in a big way.

He has gone around the world and into the center of noteworthy events through his work, which includes authoring the FBI’s profile of the Unabomber and helping create the Joint Terrorism Task Force in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

EARNING RESPECT

In 1993, Icove came home to Knoxville to teach, spreading his vast knowledge of forensic engineering. Through an endowed professorship he focuses specifically on fire forensic investigations, overseeing the graduate certificate program in fire protection engineering, which provides much-needed training to practicing fire investigators.

In addition to his teaching duties at the university, Icove regularly assists agencies, domestic and international, with investigations and training. He recently conducted a weeklong class at the Israel Police National Training Academy, reviewing emerging scientific advancements including 3-D imaging of fire scenes and computer fire modeling.

Icove says he’s often called upon to explain how fire investigations work, most recently in relation to the devastating wildfires in Gatlinburg. He says the key to cracking the case often involves getting inside the head of the perpetrator, recognizing that it is sometimes easier to determine motive than to pinpoint the physical cause of a fire. “Contrary to what you see in movies and TV, gathering physical evidence after fires or explosions is tedious, time-consuming work,” says Icove. “The bigger the fire, the more places it could have started, by default. It can frustrate investigators at times.” Icove explains that young people carry out a large percentage of arsons for the thrill they get from vandalism, and that arsonists typically start small and work their way to bigger fires. Detecting a predisposition for such behavior can not only solve cases but also prevent events from progressing down a far worse path.

EXPANDING HIS REACH

Icove recently extended his expertise from investigating hot fires to unearthing the facts of cold cases after realizing that some of the emerging techniques being used in his other work—using big data to find patterns the human eye might not see—could be used to solve a wider range of crimes. “Data can tell you things that aren’t obvious,” says Icove. “Plus data doesn’t lie. Data doesn’t care. Data just exists. You just have to figure out how to use it, to learn what it is you need to find in the numbers.” This concept helped pave the way for the Murder Accountability Project—a massive undertaking led by a team including Icove as well as world-renowned journalists, psychologists, criminologists, and educators in an effort to solve cold cases. By bringing together people with varying viewpoints and having them break down data on cases, the hope is that the unseen can be seen and the unsolved can be solved. In one of its first major cases, the group partnered with the Cleveland Plain Dealer in Ohio to examine 60 unsolved murders of women dating back to 1980. With this new methodology, the group was able to move the investigation forward by concluding that the same perpetrator could have committed at least 12 of those murders. Some of the logical connecting of the dots included location of the bodies, the types of buildings where the bodies were found, and the methods used to commit the murders. Why weren’t the similarities seen sooner? Icove has a simple, if painful, explanation.

“Most cities are divided into jurisdictions, and communication between law enforcement jurisdictions isn’t always the best,” he says. “By being able to take a city-wide approach, that’s one barrier our group can eliminate.” While helping solve murders using big data is a new frontier for Icove, his drive to uncover the truth and push for justice has always been at the heart of his work.

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