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Quest for Fire Forensics

Deceptive arsons. Devastating wildfires. Deadly bombings. Authorities around the world turn to Professor David Icove for answers and training.

January 08, 2018 | Updated: April 02, 2021

In a 1984 scenario reminiscent of a thriller movie, the FBI called on David Icove, then the supervisor for the City of Knoxville Arson Task Force, to help catch an arsonist in Connecticut who was setting fire to synagogues and rabbis’ homes. Icove fed the data about the fires into a computer program he had created, the Arson Information Management System, or AIMS. He analyzed how, when, and where the fires had been set and helped the FBI develop a profile of the unknown arsonist. He estimated where the arsonist lived and where and when they were likely to strike, giving police a focused area and time frame to patrol.

After two weeks, the arsonist, frustrated by the police patrols, turned himself in.

“Whether you are talking about solving murders or solving fires,” says Icove, now the Underwriters Laboratory Professor of Practice in UT’s Tickle College of Engineering, “it all comes back to looking at data. Data doesn’t have emotions. Data just exists, so you can learn to find the right patterns and signals and it can be applied in any number of fields. You can never connect the dots if you fail to collect the dots.”

That year the FBI hired Icove to further their mission to detect and profile unsolved serial arson and bombing cases for law enforcement nationally and internationally. One of Icove’s first projects with the FBI was helping create the bureau’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime. As an FBI profiler, he served on the Unabomber Task Force and interviewed imprisoned arsonists and bombers to hone his profiling techniques further. Today, after four decades as a preeminent authority on fire forensics, Icove directs UT’s graduate certificate program in fire protection engineering, preparing students for a world rich in arson investigations and the need for fire prevention.

From Computerphilia to Co-Writing the Book on Fire Forensics

Icove fell in love with computers at Shaker Heights, Ohio, High School in 1965, in an experimental program with Case Western Reserve University to expose students to their newest computer center. At UT, he pursued his undergraduate and master’s degrees in electrical engineering because, in those pre-PC days, it was an avenue to computer science. His master’s thesis was a computer program highlighting patterns of arsonist behavior. While a civilian engineer for the US Navy, Icove got a second bachelor’s degree, in fire protection engineering at the University of Maryland, then returned to Knoxville for his PhD in fire engineering.

In the tough economic days of the late 1970s and early ’80s, homeowners who couldn’t make their mortgage payments sometimes took the easy way out with arson—what insiders call “selling to the insurance company.” As Knoxville prepared for the World’s Fair of 1982, Icove used his AIMS program to create a profile of arson-prone buildings and help local police let owners know they were watching.

Leaving the FBI in 1993, he returned to Knoxville to soon become the TVA Police’s assistant chief of Criminal Investigations. After 9/11, Icove represented TVA full time as a task force agent on the FBI’s National Joint Terrorism Task Force until he retired in 2015. In 2016, he consulted with investigators following the deadly Gatlinburg wildfires.

Icove also co-authored, with John DeHaan, Kirk’s Fire Investigation, the definitive guide for fire investigators. “We wrote the book to fill a need, which was to get all the knowledge, techniques, and information that we’d gathered through investigations in one place,” says Icove. “That way, anyone who might be conducting a fire investigation could pick it up and look at some of the things we encountered to see if their case had any familiar elements.

“It’s like an encyclopedia of fire investigations, in a sense. You don’t know what can help you make a break in a case, so every new perspective helps.”

Photos by Kellie Crye Ward

Produced by The Office of Communications and Marketing

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