Chris Connealy: The TT Interview

Chris Connealy, Texas’ new state fire marshal, is making the improvement of fire investigation practices his top priority. And he says that it’s not just an issue for the state office. He wants to provide a model for improvement to fire agencies across Texas.

Connealy, the former fire chief in Houston and Cedar Park, has embraced the recommendations in the Texas Forensic Science Commision’s report on the arson conviction of Cameron Todd Willingham. Connealy has pledged to use it as a guide for his agency and then go beyond its recommendations. 

Willingham was convicted of arson and sentenced to death for the 1991 blaze that killed his three daughters. He was executed in 2004, but scientists who reviewed the evidence used at his trial concluded that his home in Corsicana wasn’t intentionally torched. 

The Texas Forensic Science Commission, created in 2005, agreed last year that faulty science had been at play in the investigation of the Willingham case. In its report last April, the commission recommended improved training of fire investigators, adopting national standards, establishing peer review groups and other suggestions for change. The commission also called for an unprecedented review of arson convictions by the state fire marshal and the Innocence Project of Texas. 

Then-State Fire Marshal Paul Maldonado agreed to work on the review, but he abruptly resigned in December.

 

That’s where Connealy comes in. He started his new job in June and has pledged to create a scientific advisory committee, as recommended by the Texas Forensics Commission Report, to embrace the scientific methods for arson investigations, and to organize training opportunities for fire investigators statewide. 

He’s also agreed to work with the Innocence Project of Texas to review cases of potentially innocent inmates convicted of arson.

Connealy talked with The Texas Tribune about how he’ll implement the changes in the commission’s report, funding challenges, some of his plans for educating fire investigators and ways to bring more experts to the scene when arson occurs. 

The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

TT: You’ve agreed to work with the Texas Forensic Science Commission. You’ve said you’re going to make their report a blueprint for reforming the state fire marshal’s office. Why?  

Connealy: I’ve read the report, and I certainly just think it’s the right thing to pursue, and how it’s done has continually been evolving over the years. And I want to make sure we’re embracing the scientific method [as is laid out in the report]. 

I think there’s no reason not to partner with the forensics commission. I think it’s a good report overall in the sense that we need to make sure we’re following the national standards as a [minimum]. 

I reached out to the chief counsel of the Texas Forensic Science Commission my first week when I started here to tell her my expectations, and that I’m going to work very closely with her. I want us to be singing from the same hymnal, if you will, when we’re testifying that the state fire marshal's office is making progress with improving fire investigations. 

 

And again, this is not just an issue with the state fire marshal’s office. I want to provide leadership for fire investigations as a whole in Texas [because] ... there’s room for continuous improvement. We want to make sure that, as we improve ourselves, we provide that opportunity and leadership to whoever’s involved with fire investigations in the state. That this is the way we think it should be done. 

[About] working with the Innocence Project of Texas, there’s no reason not to. We want to make sure everything we’re doing is following best practices. So how do you argue with that? 

TT: When you say you’re going to use the commission’s recommendations in the Willingham case as a blueprint, how are you going to do that? What are some of the reforms you have in mind?

Connealy: Well, it’s a number of issues, and this plan’s still being developed and is far from finalized, but as I testified to the commission, I am going to establish a science advisory committee. Fire investigation is so science-centric that the state fire marshal's office, as well as municipal governments, don’t have experts that are part of the staff, such as electrical engineers, fire scientists, forensics pathologists and others, to assist. There’s expertise beyond the expertise that’s internal in these agencies. We need to reach out to these different groups to make sure we’re staying on top of the latest trends in fire science, as well as seeking their input.  

What I want to do in the state fire marshal's office while we have the science advisory committee is I want to also establish contracts — or retainers for service, if you will — and we’re still playing with the methodology of how that comes to fruition. [We need] to get these experts available to us, pay for their services, so they help us on our peer review of investigative cases we’re doing, to challenge us and make sure we’re following best practices, get their input, assist on scenes where needed, as well as [have them provide] just general education to our investigators.

That’s a challenge that I think is a national issue. Those type of experts are not available to your typical fire marshal's office or arson division in a fire department, for example.  

TT: Why not? 

Connealy: Typically it’s a funding issue. I don’t know how we get this done without this expertise made available to us. And you can’t expect them all to do it on a pro bono basis. So this is a shift in how we approach fire investigations that’s not just a state fire marshal's office issue here in Texas; it’s an issue I think, quite frankly, nationally. 

Now the devil’s in the details: How are we going to get this accomplished? Funding is always a challenge in government. But I don’t know how you get this done without those services as part of the equation. It’s a multifaceted approach with how we make improvements here. That’s going to be the challenge, and I’m working on that, as well as looking at what partnerships can we enhance. 

I’ve been a fire chief in Houston and a fire chief in Cedar Park – two different-sized departments. Specifically for small fire departments, you don’t do fire investigations that often. So when a fire comes in that needs to be investigated, you don’t have as much expertise or practice with that.

What I’d like to look at is to form task forces, if you will, so those that have more experience work alongside those who don’t, and we both win-win by getting additional resources, but collectively investigate fires in various regions of the state, and we enhance our skill-sets, and make sure we’re following the same procedures as best we can by using a regional approach, and make sure we’re following best practices at a minimum. I want to exceed those if we can, but we’ve got to have a starting point here.

The different entities I’ve been talking to the past seven weeks since I’ve started seem to think that’s a good approach. These are just different ideas of how we go about making improvements. 

TT: How would you rank this — enacting the recommendations of the Texas Forensics Commission Report to improve arson investigation — among your priorities as a fire marshal?

Connealy: This is No. 1 right now. I’ve got other issues I’m working on, but certainly this is first and foremost because we need to get this issue resolved, and I am committed to seeing this through. 

And it’s a huge challenge. We’re trying to develop something that’s not an established practice, that’s not out there to readily imitate, if you will. On municipal government, you don’t have on retainer an electrical engineer, you can’t afford to pay him and have him on staff, you don’t have a fire scientist, you don’t have an attorney that’s on staff necessarily that has a specialty in arson cases, so you’ve seek those individuals out. Certainly medical examiners, when you need their expertise, they’re not on staff. 

So how do you acquire their services? You look for having some type of contract or retainer so you can have them assist you in your case reviews, assist you in training, assist you on consulting with you as various things come about, and keeping up with the latest trend in fire science, forensics and all that’s related to fire investigations. We’re involved with putting people potentially in prison, so we need to make sure we’re doing this as best we can. And I’m committed to that.

Now the plan is not fully developed yet, but I’ll assure you we’re well down the path of doing the research. We’ve already got training scheduled with Dr. John DeHaan, a nationally known expert at Texas A&M, at their fire school, that we’re bringing in all our investigators in around the state to attend the class. 

TT: It seems like funding is a really big issue for attracting these experts. What are some of the ways you’re going to deal with this challenge?

Connealy: That’s recommendation No. 17 in the forensics commission report. [For] some aspects of this, there’s not going to be any cost to do it. Some recommendations are going to be very expensive. We’re in a day and time when government budgets are restricted. I don’t know what the outcome is going to be. I’m hopeful; I feel like we’re getting a lot of support here. But we haven’t finalized the budget. I’m working the phones, sending emails and everything else to try and get an understanding of what it will cost to have their services so that once we know the cost we can try and start budgeting for it. 

TT: Is there anything that in your background in terms of your previous jobs that’s made you so committed to doing this as state fire marshal?

Connealy: My background [is that] I’m very diligent in making sure we’re following best practices. In Houston, we became the largest accredited fire department by the Commission of Fire Accreditation International — not only in the U.S., but in the world. We’re the largest fire department to accomplish this.

I’m a big believer in strategic planning. You need to have a plan to determine where you want to go. I want to make sure we’re following best practices, [that] where there are opportunities to be accredited we’re following that as well — because I’d rather have a third party say, "Yeah, you’re doing the right thing." I want validation from the outside. 

I’m excited about the new role I’m in. Certainly there’s going to be a lot to do. I relish working on challenging problems. This is an issue we’re going to confront, and I’m committed to seeing it through. I will work with any and all of those that can help us make improvements in fire investigations and fire inspections, and everything else the state fire marshal's office is responsible for.

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