Even before his first official day as the Effingham County Sheriff’s Office’s fire investigator, Dan Mealor was on the job.
Mealor‘s first day with the ECSO’s Criminal Investigations Division was Monday. However, he got a phone call Saturday from Detective David Ehsanipoor about a suspicious fire the day before at a mobile home on Middleton Drive.
“I said, ‘Hey, I know you haven’t started here, but you start Monday and we have this fire we need you to look at,’” Ehsanipoor recounted good-naturedly Wednesday. “So Dan got his start real quick.”
Mealor already had plenty of experience investigating fires in Effingham County, though. Effingham was one of the 19 counties he covered as an investigator for the State Fire Marshal’s Office.
“I’ve worked with these guys (at the ECSO) for a number of years,” Mealor said. “They have a really good department here, I enjoy working with them and just wanted to come down here on more of a local level instead of running all over southeast Georgia.”
Mealor has investigated more than 1,000 fires in his career, according to Ehsanipoor. He had been with the State Fire Marshal’s Office for nearly 11 years, including the past five as its training officer.
“When you have an opportunity to get a man like Dan Mealor, it’s good for us,” said Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie. “He knows what he’s doing, he’s been doing it a long time, and he has the experience and the training, so it’s an opportunity for us to pick up a good, experienced officer.”
According to McDuffie, a full-time fire investigator has become a need for the ECSO as the number of arsons in the county has increased in recent years. Along with the Middleton Drive fire — which Mealor already has ruled an arson — he is investigating a half-dozen other fires Effingham County has had this year that are active cases.
The sheriff’s office had been working for about three years to hire its own fire investigator, McDuffie said, but the necessary funding wasn’t available. The ECSO will pay half of Mealor’s salary and Effingham’s fire departments will pay the other half.
“The fire departments have been onboard with it since day one when we mentioned getting this done,” McDuffie said.
If Mealor is not working an active fire case, he will assist the ECSO in other criminal investigations. He also will be available to assist other agencies that ask for his help.
“If they want us to help, we’ll be glad to,” McDuffie said. “That’s what we’re here for.”
The sheriff described Mealor as “Johnny-on-the-spot” anytime assistance from the State Fire Mashal's Office was requested. Nonetheless, the ECSO always was at the mercy of the state’s schedule and available resources.
When Mealor investigated fires in Effingham for the State Fire Marshal’s Office, he determined the origin and cause of the fire and collected evidence to prepare for court. He then turned the case over to local investigators to interview victims and witnesses and attempt to locate suspects.
“Now I not only will work the scene, I will be the one doing all the follow-up,” Mealor said. “Basically I will handle it from start to finish.”
Mealor’s experience includes serving as the lead investigator in two of the area’s most devastating fires in recent memory — the fire that engulfed a warehouse housing tons of rubber at the Georgia Ports Authority’s Ocean Terminal in February of this year, and the explosion at the Imperial Sugar refinery that killed 14 people and injured 42 others in February 2008.
“The Imperial Sugar incident was huge,” Mealor said. “That probably, and hopefully, will be the largest one I’ll ever work in my career. I hope I never have to deal with another situation to that magnitude.”
Another reason Mealor was drawn to working full-time in Effingham is his wife Crystal’s job as a teacher at Ebenezer Middle School. They live in Screven County.
In fact, it was a suggestion from his wife that started Mealor on his path to becoming a fire investigator. He began working in law enforcement in 1991, and she encouraged a career switch to firefighting as they neared their wedding day in 1997.
“She felt like it was safer running in burning buildings than doing drug raids and kicking doors,” Mealor joked.
He combined his law enforcement and firefighting backgrounds to become a fire investigator. Along with being a state-certified firefighter, fire investigator and law enforcement officer, Mealor has a degree in fire science and has received training in several related courses.
“Investigator Mealor is one of the highest-trained fire investigators in the state,” Ehsanipoor said.
“The complexity of putting the puzzle together on fire scenes just kind of fascinated me,” Mealor said. “I jumped at the opportunity to do it every day.”