“But I Don’t Conduct Interviews…”
It may be in the best interest of public safety for firefighters to become involved in fire scene interviews. They’re not as intimidating as you might think.
HAVE YOU EVER heard this excuse used? Perhaps it is an excuse that you may have used in the past when confronted with an interview situation. Let’s face it, arson cases are made and broken through interviews, with no exceptions. Your agency may have put together the best arson case that’s possible, yet without some type of interview generated, chances are slim that you will ever get into court -and putting perpetrators behind bars is what arson investigation is all about.
“But I don’t know what to ask. or howto phrase the questions. I can’t talk with people-oh, hell, I can’t do it,” you say. Wrong! Some of the best interviews that I have ever witnessed have been conducted by firefighters, both paid and volunteer.
That stands to reason: Who else knows better than the firefighter about how fire behaves, its reaction when suppressed, and the general chemistry of fire? Who has the greatest stake in firefighting operations?
Most large metropolitan centers attach specialized arson squads to fire and police departments, and responsibility,^ for interviewing is not a problem. However, less populated rural and suburban districts rely on their local law enforcer ment officers to conduct interviews, for two reasons: first, police officers have* had more experience in this area than, have firefighters; second, the prevailing attitude is one of “that’s the way it’s always been done.” Interviewing has., long been perceived as the police officer’s job, that it’s “what they’re getting 7 paid for,” and that the fire investigation? unit should concentrate strictly on cause and origin.
If your district is very fortunate, tho^ road patrol officers may have had some specialized training in fire/arson investi9 gation. Even with such training, how-$ ever, the police force is usually restricted by increased case loads and manpower shortages-often, just two or* three police officers are responsible for patrolling an entire county. In such cases, it is apparent that fire service , involvement in conducting interviews, and ensuring that they’re conducted properly, is necessary.
This article, then, was prepared with rural and surburban firefighters in mind. * It is not intended to make firefighters into police officers, but to give fire service personnel insight into the pro-‘ cess of interviewing fire victims.
STORE EGOS IN THE CLOSET
It is human nature for people to take pride in themselves and in the organizations with which they are affiliated- ‘ and rightly so. We want to gain the most recognition and respect that’s possible for ourselves and our organizations. We’ want to project an image. That desire manifests itself in many ways. Our arson investigation unit vehicle, nicely painted with tender loving care, sits ready and waiting at the station. Our beautifully embroidered arson investigator jackets hang in our cars, with the lettering facing out. Naturally.
Our arrival at the fire scene is impressive. We pull our vehicles past the barricades to the front line. We don our jump suits with the words “Arson Investigator” emblazoned across the back. The public is impressed. We hear the murmur, “It’s an arson, the arson guys are here.” We take out hydrocarbon detectors, cameras with powerful lenses, evidence systems, and anything ‘else that’s new on the market.
Have you given any thought to the image that we are portraying? Put your.self in the owner’s or occupant’s shoes. After seeing all of these references to arson, would you want to talk to any of the investigators-especially if it was an accidental fire caused by your negligence? Of course not! The owner may come away with the feeling that you are there to prove that it was an incendiary fire of his doing.
Why make your investigation more difficult than it has to be? Tone down ‘the effect of your arrival at the fire scene. Paint your vans, if you must, with the words, “Fire Investigation Unit,” and ‘if you must have the fancy jackets and jump suits, try lettering them with “C & O Team.” Eliminate references to “ar”Son.” Your brother firefighters will know who you are, and a simple “toning down” will make your presence less ‘threatening to those whose building you’re investigating.
AN IMPORTANT GROUND RULE
We must always assume the owner of the property to be on the fire scene, and thus, we must be discreet in our conversations with other investigators and fire scene commanders. In the evolution of C & O, you will undoubtedly receive a lot of extraneous information from various sources, some who may be ‘ in error. Keeping it all in perspective- and keeping it from the ears of civilians, particularly the property owner-will assist you in your pursuit of accurate, forthright interviews.
STARTING ON A POSITIVE NOTE
The fire investigation unit has arrived on the scene, and they need help from your department to conduct the investigation. The chief directs you to the owner/occupant, witness, or other interviewee. “But, Chief, I don’t…” Hold it right there! Try this approach:
Walk up to the owner and introduce yourself. Give him a firm handshake. Give him a business card, if you have one. (If you don’t, it may be a good idea to acquire them, especially since many people will recall more information when they are more relaxed and may want to contact you.) Explain to the owner why you are there, and that, although you understand that it is a very upsetting time for him, there is nevertheless certain information that you must have to complete a fire report. Never say statement! This may turn off the interviewee right from the start. Mention to the owner that you have a lot of questions to ask, and answering them will help speed not only the investigation, but perhaps even the insurance claim. Make sure he knows that you are there to help him and to answer any questions he might have. Make a friend at the beginning of the interview. I have found it a lot easier to interview in a casual, friendly manner, rather than from a position of authority. You will be able to gather much more information in this way than you might imagine.
A CHANGE IN SCENERY
The next step-and perhaps the most important-is to get the owner away from the fireground. The interview will not be productive if the subject is allow ed to remain at the scene, seeing his possessions up in smoke. Overhauling operations, to the civilian, may seem like nothing more than adding insult to injury, and will excite the interviewee. There will also be friends, family, and noisy equipment to contend with. l ake him down the street, behind a tree, in the car, in the front seat of a pumper, anywhere that will ensure privacy (your “homefield advantage”). Distractions, if not eliminated, can be effectively reduced.
RECORDING THE INFO
Recording the information you acquire during interviews is something to consider before you arrive at the scene. You can attempt to write it all dowm, but then you will miss vital observations with respect to the interviewee’s body language (a field of study in itself). The combination method-writing down the important facts and recording the entire interview by means of a microcassette recorder-is effective.
“Foul,” you say. “You have to tell them that you are recording them, or it’s illegal.” Not so, necessarily! In New York State, for example, as long as one person agrees to have their voice mechanically recorded, the tape is admissible in court. And guess who that one person is-that’s right-you!
However, there are certain evidentiary issues involved in using tape recorders, and a consultation with your prosecutors is recommended prior to using this invaluable tool. If you still can’t get over the fact that you can record a person without them knowing it, just think of all the controlled drug buys: it’s the same technique, simply substituting a fancy tape recorder (a secreted body wire) for the microcassette recorder that you would carry.
PAY CAREFUL ATTENTION
Keep in mind-however opportunistic it may seem -that the emotions experienced by fire victims (confusion, for example) may work to your advantage. Oftentimes, the victim or witness, caught up in all the excitement, is apt to say a lot more than he would have ever intended to say under different circumstances-if you ask the right questions. I have found this particularly true in incendiary fire cases in which the owner has to start stating false information from the initial interview’.
GO WITH THE FLOW
Also remember that the interview is but one step in a fact-gathering operation. Don’t w orry if you suspect that the interview ee is placing his ow n particular “twist” on the story. We are there to gain information-whatever “facts” he wants to tell you. Don’t stop to correct him. Any law enforcement officer will tell you that it is really easy to knock holes in a story that’s full of untruths. What makes the initial interview so important, especially in incendiary’ fire cases, is that it provides something to go on. Follow-up investigations will weed out the fiction from the facts. So let the interviewee tell you whatever he wants.
REMEMBER THE BASICS
Gain facts. Obviously, names, addresses, where they will be staying in the aftermath of the fire, the phone number there, and dates of birth is the very basic information necessary to begin an investigation. With just this little you can identify persons who have information, find them later, and, most importantly, access criminal history records.
GET THEM INVOLVED
Before getting to the heart of the interview^, ask the owner/occupant for help. Make it clear how difficult it is for investigators to make an accurate reconstruction of the structure’s original condition after it has been ravaged by fire. Explain that it would be very helpful to have a sketch of the building’s layout and location of vital items such as flammable liquids and valuables. This gives the owner the impression that he is an important part of the investigation. Have him draw the sketch as precisely as possible, and make sure he signs and dates it; it will become part of the case file. A sketch should be requested of every witness, detailing what he or she saw. These sketches are invaluable in many cases and are well worth the time and effort.
THE NATURE OF QUESTIONING
At this point, you want to get very specific information from the owner/interviewee. Take it one step at a time- there’s a lot of ground to cover. Group the information into categories, then narrow down this information into specifics. For an example, see page 40.
You are only limited in your questions by your own imagination. The questions are endless, and there are no wrong questions to ask.
Stay away from questions that can be answered by a simple “yes” or “no.” Ask open-ended questions that force the interviewee to explain in greater detail, such as “Could you tell me what happened next?” or “What did you do after that?” Let the interviewee do most of the talking. Sometimes a simple pause may be all that’s necessary to get the subject to proceed. We all feel a need to talk, and so will the interviewee.
Again, it is important to remember during a first interview with a witness not to care if the information you’re receiving contains falsehoods. In the case of arson, the more fabrication the better. I once interviewed a building owner who was in the financial consulting business. He told me, “To put it in laymen’s terms, I am ‘equity rich’ and ‘cash-flow’ poor’.” Needless to say, his cash flow didn’t improve any. In another case, a woman was so explicit in her description of her prefire activity at a store that she quoted the prices of specific items, and she was exact on very important points regarding the fire itself. After a second interview, she was charged with and later convicted of arson.
If the interviewee is starting to get upset with the questions you are asking, ask yourself why they’re feeling this way. Are you getting into sensitive stress areas? Try to explain that you have to ask these questions, and that they are the same for every fire you investigate. If that doesn’t work, explain that if you don’t get answers for the questions, your boss will be extremely upset. Generally, people will not want to be responsible for putting you in hot water, and will answer the questions. But all the while, keep in the back of your mind the questions that seem to unnerve them.
If they should persist in refusing to answer questions, then it is highly recommended that you read your ow n fire insurance policy to him. This policy is basically the same throughout the United States. It contains conditions and limitations by which the insured must abide or risk having the policy voided. One very important item contained in most fire insurance policies is what is ‘called an examination under oath. In such an examination, the insured must come forth and answer questions, while under oath, from an attorney representing the insurance company, the same as if he were giving testimony in court. The answers are recorded by a stenographer. Failure to answer any questions could forfeit the policy owner’s right to collect on it.
A word of caution about supplying questions to an insurance company for an examination under oath: Some courts have taken the position that, under such circumstances, the insurance company becomes an agent for the police, and in that respect they are bound by the same restrictions as are police officers (such as the Miranda warning, etc.). However, if you refrain ‘from collaborating directly with the insurance company-that is, refrain from supplying the insurance adjustor ‘with questions/information, thereby making him, in essence, an extension of yourself, a representative of the law- the exam under oath will be admissible in court.
So how does this help if the person refuses to answer questions? In New York, die insurance law states, “Any company shall release to any authorized law enforcement agency all applications for coverage, previous claim information, copies of examinations under oath….” And, yes, fire investigators are considered to be audiorized law enforcement agents. Therefore, you can obtain copies of any and all examinations under oath. A strong relationship with insurance adjustors, agents, and company representatives will make your job a lot easier.
It is helpful if you think of the interview’ as merely a conversation with another human being. The more comfortable you become with each other, the more information you will be able to obtain. Observe the popular talk show hosts on television, how easy their interviews seem to be-mere conversations-but they are getting information from the interviewees.
Boundaries are endless in an interview. If the circumstances are right, an interview could last for an extended period of time. The whole time, you’re gathering information that may or may not be important to the investigation. The time to sort out information is after the interview and during follow-up interviews. If you are able to gather a wealth of information from an interview, this will make law enforcement’s job much easier. They will use the information you obtained and start knocking holes in the suspect’s story if, indeed, it appears to be a case of arson. The more holes they can punch in an arsonist’s story, the better. It’s all in the interest of public safety.
There are certain questions that have to be answered, no matter howyou feel about asking them. You may be pleasantly surprised at the answers. Always ask, “Do you know what may have started the fire?’’ The responses you get run the gamut from quite logical explanations to the most off-the-wall renderings you could ever think of.
Next, always ask, “Did you start this fire?” It may be an uncomfortable question for you to ask, but again, you may be surprised at the answer. A student of mine at the NewYork State Academy of Fire Science asked that question of an interviewee. Her response to him was, “Yeah, I did it.” The student-a fire coordinator in northern New York- almost fell out of the car. You w ill never knowunless you ask. People may be just waiting to tell someone that they are responsible for the crime.
A very important question that should be asked is if the person would submit to a polygraph exam. After a fire has been determined to be incendiary, there are suspects. In order to concentrate on prime suspects, you have to eliminate people from suspicion. A way to do that is to have anyone who had access to the building take a polygraph. Ask politely, in this fashion: “Mr. Jones, I know you didn’t have anything to do with this fire, but, we have so many people that may have done it, it’s impossible to eliminate people without the use of a polygraph. It can’t be used in a criminal court, and is merely a tool to eliminate people from suspicion and concentrate on the suspect. Would you submit to a polygraph exam?”
This question should be asked near the end of the interview’, since it is somewhat accusational, and may tend to shift the tone of the interview. Of course, before asking the person if he’ll submit to the test, make sure that you have access to the machine. The polygraph can be a fine tool to the investigator, but there are pros and cons to using it. Just remember that it is simply a tool in the investigation.
INFORMATION AVAILABLE TO YOU
Most people who intentionally burn their property are not aware of the information that is available to fire investigators. How many times have you heard words to the effect of “I don’t know how you people can tell what started a fire, with everything burned up”? They are also ignorant of the breadth of information that we can access to start disproving so-called facts that they present during the interview.
For instance, with their name and date of birth, we can access criminal history information (CHI). Suppose they tell you during the interview that they have never had a fire. You might access their CHI and find that they have been arrested for arson in the past. Or, by using the same basic information, you might access the property insurance loss registry and find that they have had three fires, one occurring in Georgia, another in Chicago, and a third in New Jersey.
Questions can be formed using this block outline approach to general areas that need to be addressed in a fire interview:
BUILDING: Who lives there? (names and DOBs)/ Who owns it? (how long)! Is there a mortgage on it? (from what financial institution, how long, what i payments)/ Occupied or unoccupied?/ Keys? (locked or unlocked)/ Previous fires? (how many, FD notified)/ Problems? (heating, electrical, appliances, ivood store)/ Type of heat? (gas, electric, wood, LP)/ How old is heating system? (problems)/ Remodeling or renovations? (what, when, who did them)
PROPERTY: Who owns it? (how long, names on deed)/ Leins or judgments on building or property? (check with count}’ clerk)/ For sale recently? (when, how much, why)
INSURANCE: Name of company? (agent, address)/ Amount of insurance? (building, contents, additional living expense [ALE], business interruption ! insurance)/ Previous claims?
OWNER/OCCUPANT:Names, ages, DOBs?/ How long lived at location?/ Do they smoke?/ Last person to leave, building locked or unlocked?/ Where flammables stored?! Where employed?/ Do they have an idea where or how fire may have started?/ Did you start the fire? (If the answer if yes, then you must ! follow legal course of action, i.e. Miranda, get law enforcement)/ How, wherei were they notified about fire, by whom?/ Where are valuables stored in building? OBTAIN SKETCH
The above general blocks of information are essential for a successful I interview. You may add to them or subtract from them, depending on what you think is best for a particular situation. There are countless areas that you can cover in an interview, if you have a cooperative subject. With experience in interviewing, you can develop lines of questioning specific to your own i geographic region.
Indicators such as these should raise red flags to you. Why were these people being untruthful? Most amateur arsonists-the homeowners who decide to burn their property to collect on an insurance policy-are totally unaware of the observations and conclusions investigators can make at a fire scene to determine C & O. They are unaware of the remarkable techniques that are being performed in crime laboratories. They are ignorant of the information that we are able to access through various means (CHls, county clerk’s office, department of motor vehicles, financial institutions, engineers, code enforcement officers, and many other sources). So many amateur arsonists attempt to give false information during interviews, believing full well that they have given you a snow job. If this should happen to you during an initial interview, just sit back with a good feeling inside and take it all in, knowing that their statements will haunt them.
IT’S UP TO YOU
Obviously, space does not allow a list of all the questions that should be asked.’ Every fire is different, and every interviewer is different. The block outline below will give you a general idea of the ‘ types of questions that are important in a fire scene interview.
It’s beneficial to have a plan before -the interview. Take the areas that you want to cover as blocks of information, then narrow the blocks down to specif -ic questions. The best interviewer is able to proceed casually from one area to another. Most inexperienced inter” viewers feel somewhat intimidated; however, the bottom line is this: if you can talk with people, you can interview them. At your next fire investigation, try to conduct an interview, or be present when one is being conducted. You will notice that during the interview at which you’re just “sitting in,” you will have questions that you would like to ¾ have answered. You’ll begin to get a feel for it, and, before long, it will become second nature to you.
Chances are that you, the members of the fire service, can do interviews better than anyone. You know the area,. know the demographics, and, oftentimes, the people involved. You have devoted your life to the fire service. You , know what it is like to sit in the classroom learning the basics and learning the advanced methods on your , nights off. You know what it’s like to crawl on your belly in search of a child in a smoke-filled building. You have experienced the sleepless nights, braving the elements, fighting to save someone else’s property. You know the feeling you have when a family escapes a burning building after hearing your fire prevention message about EDITH. And you know, all too well, the grief you have when you lose a brother to a fire- especially when it is an arson fire. YOU HAVE A STAKE IN THIS