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Intentional Car Fires have Milwaukee Firefighters Training to Become Detectives

It's a call Milwaukee Firefighters are seeing more than ever before: A car engulfed in flames, abandoned on a quiet road or in a parking lot.

Their first concern is putting out the flames. Their second, figuring out how the fire started. 

     "What we're trying to do is determine whether or not the car fires that we do see in the city of Milwaukee are accidental, or whether they're arson," says Captain Schuyler Belott. 

Already this year, Milwaukee Firefighters have been dispatched to 249 vehicle fires, that's more than 2 per day. 

     "We certainly have a problem in the city of Milwaukee with stolen vehicles, and they're being used for other crimes, and then at the end burned," says Belott. 

So how can firefighters pull evidence from a burned out shell of a car? 

     "It takes a lot of studying," says Forensic Examiner Mike Riegert.

On a recent April weekend, about 30 firefighters and police officers took part in a first-of-its-kind training in Milwaukee. 

Riegert and his forensic team started 10 fires on 10 different cars, simulating real-life scenarios for first responders.

     "We're simulating some arson fires, some electrical fires, some mechanical failures," says Riegert.

Riegert travels from state to state, training law enforcement and firefighters on how to detect arson. 

     "Vehicle fires are a lot different than structure fires," he says. "There really aren't a lot of people that specialize in vehicles."

The first step: Figuring out where the fire started. 

Riegert says most arsonists act quickly, hoping to start the car on fire and get away. That often involves pouring gas on the interior seats, which leaves a visible pattern after it's burned away. 

     "You identify the place with the greatest amount of damage to find the origin of the fire," says Belott. "There's a lot of different ways it can happen." 

Out of the 800 active firefighters with MFD, only 30 are trained as fire investigators. That number will grow by 50% this year, thanks to trainings like this one. 

     "What I think we're seeing is more of those fires that aren't necessarily accidental or mechanical," says Belott. "The more investigators we have, the better job we can do." 

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