In Pennsylvania, every fire chief is responsible for determining the origin and cause of fires. Is every fire chief trained in the science of fire investigation? The science of fire investigation, you ask? Yes, it is a science. How many times have you been called to the fire scene and found the contents of the entire structure, including carpet and padding, out in the front yard? Unfortunately, I have had this experience. A fire chief told me of a fire that was caused by an electrical short in a lightweight extension cord. This chief then handed me an extension cord with signs of arcing in the middle of the cord. Was this cord damaged, and did the damage cause the fire? Was it defective when it came from the manufacturer? Was it simply plugged in at the time of the fire and damaged by the fire? Were all other possible causes ruled out, or was finding an arc the simple solution–an easy way to call the fire accidental?

An insurance company paid the claim in the above case because the cause of the fire could not be determined. Why couldn`t it be determined? Because the fire department failed to do a proper examination. Few photographs, if any, were taken to document the fire scene. The entire contents of the room of origin were piled in the front yard and subsequently covered with four inches of snow. All of the room`s electronic equipment was thrown together, including a TV, a stereo, a VCR, a computer, and a monitor. There was no way to separate all of these items or find all of the pieces, since they were just thrown out the window. No crime was committed in this example, so the fire department did salvage and overhaul, declared the fire accidental, and went home.

This case and others like it cost the insurance industry hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, and ultimately, we all pay. In subrogation (a key word in the insurance industry today), an insurance company tries to recoup its loss for a claim paid through the civil court system from another party–the appliance manufacturer, the appliance installer, another insurance company, or even a fire department.

Salvage and overhaul are important steps in fire extinguishment. No department wants to be embarrassed by having to return to extinguish a fire it left just two hours before. The old school of thought was just to throw everything out the window until there was nothing left to burn. This was considered good overhaul. How many firefighters are around to help the fire investigator carry all that furniture back inside to reconstruct the room of origin? If you had to carry a dresser back up two flights of stairs, you would think twice before throwing that piece of furniture out the window at the next fire. There is a fine line between not enough overhaul and too much. What can departments do to stay on that line? The answer is simple, but not always easy: train.

All fire department officers should be trained in proper salvage and overhaul as well as basic fire investigation. How many departments have a 35mm camera on the apparatus to take pictures before overhaul? How many have a photographer on the roster to document a fire scene? Can the department conduct an initial investigation before overhauling? For the most part, the fire officers on-scene can complete an initial investigation prior to, or even during, overhaul.

I can speak on both sides of this issue, as a fire investigator and as a firefighter. I have more than 21 years of service in a suburban volunteer fire department and currently serve as chief. My department has a photographer on its roster who responds to calls and takes photographs and videotapes to document the fire scene. When necessary, photographs are taken of the fire origin area prior to overhaul. All my firefighters know they should not haphazardly throw things about before they are documented. This has helped build better working relationships with the police department, fire marshal`s office, and insurance industry.

Evidence documentation and preservation are crucial to making any fire case, be it criminal or civil. In criminal cases, evidence is documented prior to removal, tagged, and logged as evidence, and the chain of custody is maintained. Why can`t these procedures be followed for an accidental fire? Proper fire scene documentation by the fire department can assist the investigator in his job and will also help the insurance adjuster by allowing him to see the evidence and know that it has been documented properly. This in turn helps the adjuster decide how to pursue a claim.

Unfortunately, more evidence is de-stroyed by fire departments than is usually necessary. Try not to disturb anything during overhaul you don`t need to for efficiency. If you must remove appliances or other electronic equipment, do so with care and try to keep all of the components together. Photograph these items prior to removal. If there is a problem with a particular appliance and the insurance company decides to subrogate against the manufacturer, the item will have been documented before removal.

The insurance industry has paid more claims than necessary because of a lack of understanding by fire departments. Who pays for all of these claims? We all do–in higher premiums on our own insurance policies. Let`s all do our part in keeping insurance premiums low by using the “think before you throw” method and document- ing the fire scene. n

BRIAN L. GRAY is a 21-year veteran and chief of the Holiday Park (PA) Fire Department; an International Association of Arson Investigators-certified fire investigator with Robson Lapina, Inc. in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania; first vice president of the Pennsylvania Association of Arson Investigators; and a licensed private investigator.

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