Collecting and Handling Evidence at the Fire Scene: An Overview
Willian A. May Jr.’s Training Notebook
The knock-out sounds at 0300 hours, sending your truck company, two engine companies, and a district battalion chief screaming to a vacant building fire. As you roll out of bed and slide down the pole, you know what you’re going to find when you arrive—another arson fire in an old, abandoned building, just like the others you’ve been fighting over the last several weeks in the same general area of town. The other fires have all been at about the same time of night, and this one seems like it’ll be no different, except it’s going to rob you of a decent night’s sleep that you need because you’re working your off-day job tomorrow.
Upon arrival at the scene, you find exactly what you had expected: A vacant, two-story frame building that’s totally involved. The fire is knocked down, and during overhaul you spot an object on the floor among the ruins. It arouses your suspicions immediately because it looks out of place. It just doesn’t look right.
What could it be doing there —in that particular spot? Could this be a piece of evidence? You already suspect arson. Is this object something that can help you prove the case? Could this object be important enough to help nail the person who started this fire and who robbed the district of some of its needed life support services?
You bet it could! How you handle this piece of evidence could mean the difference between an arsonist walking the streets and an arsonist who gets a deserved sentence. That’s an important responsibility to your community. A firefighter, being one of the first persons on the scene capable of recognizing basic signs of an arson fire, is in a good position to discover or recover valuable evidence of a fire’s cause.
Evidence may be physical (testimonial), direct, or circumstantial.
Physical evidence is broken into two subgroups. Movable evidence can be physically picked up or removed from the fire scene and transported to another location. Handguns, pieces of glass or wood, clothing, rags, small tools, flammable-mixture cans or containers, or basically any item small enough to be picked up and moved from its original spot are examples of movable evidence. Fixed (or immovable) evidence is any item or object which can’t be readily or easily moved due to its size, shape, weight, or other physical characteristic.
Direct evidence is a fact to which a person can attest without additional support. It’s usually not recovered; rather, it manifests itself through the five senses (and, for that reason, we’re not too concerned about it for purposes of this article). Watching a person pour flammable liquid on a car and setting it ablaze with a match would be direct evidence.
Circumstantial evidence is that which supports an inference from direct evidence. For example, one could infer that a person shot another if the two were observed walking into a house—one with a gun in her hand—a shot was heard, and that same person with the gun was seen running from the house.
Convictions can be obtained from circumstantial evidence. However, most of the evidence that you, as a firefighter, will encounter is physical evidence (and much of it will be movable). This physical evidence could be very fragile; that is, it could be all-tooeasily destroyed or might deteriorate to a point where it’s no longer of any value.
Once the firefighter happens upon an object during the salvage and overhaul of operations, the first question that comes to mind is, “Is it evidence?” This question can usually be answered by common sense. By evaluating the object, its location, and the circumstances surrounding the fire, by observing other fireground conditions, and by drawing from past experiences, you should have a pretty good idea as to whether or not this object is a piece of evidence. If you still can’t determine an object’s worth after using these criteria, play it safe and treat it as a potential piece of physical evidence, leaving the decision for others more qualified to do so.
Well, you’ve determined that the object you found during overhaul is (or might be) a piece of physical evidence. The next logical question is “How can I preserve this potential piece of evidence until the arson investigator arrives?” Remember the first rule of handling evidence for non-law enforcement personnel: If you don’t have to handle it, touch it, move it, fondle it, or otherwise mess with it, then don’t! But if you must, here are a few simple guidelines and general rules that may help:
First, stop what you’re doing and secure the area. Immediately notify your company officer that you’ve found something that may be valuable evidence. It’s important that you show your company officer (or other fireground commander) what you’ve discovered or recovered and explain its potential value by relating the details surrounding its recovery.
It’s critical to remember that, from the moment you discover or recover the object, you become a vital link in the “chain of custody” or “chain of possession” of the piece of evidence. This simply means that the evidence, from the moment of recovery to its presentation in court, must be accounted for. Every person who had possession of the evidence must be able to testify to the fact that the evidence hasn’t been contaminated, damaged, or otherwise mishandled. You are the first link in that chain. But don’t let that role or its responsibility scare you. Your duty as a firefighter in protecting this chain is simple: Report everything to the fireground commander and disturb nothing if at all possible.
The International Fire Service Training Association, in its excellent text entitled, Fire Cause Determination, lists five steps that the company commander or officer should follow in the absence of an arson investigator or other law enforcement personnel. These five steps are:
- Suspend salvage and overhaul, and secure the area.
- If the evidence is in danger of destruction, take steps to preserve it.
- On the fire scene, sketch, mark, and label the location of the evidence. Also have photographs taken.
- Record the time the evidence was found, where it was found, and the name of the person who found it.
- Be sure that a constant watch is kept on the evidence if it’s left in place.
- If the evidence must be moved, put it in a secure place accessible only to the officer or where a responsible firefighter can stand watch.
The proper handling of evidence is vital in any criminal case. Obviously, your primary role as a firefighter isn’t law enforcement. However, recognizing an arson fire and taking the proper steps to handle, document, and preserve any evidence of a crime you may find is your job. Failure to do so could mean that a guilty person goes free.
It is strongly suggested that each company carry an evidence kit to be used for the recovery and preservation of evidence for the investigator. Such a kit need not be expensive, and several household items can be used to reduce costs even further. Your evidence should include (but not be limited to) the following items:
- rubber or latex gloves
- 12-inch ruler
- hand tools (pliers, screwdrivers, etc.)
- steel tape measure (25-, 50-, or 100foot length)
- camera with extra film and flash attachment (or camcorder)
- flashlight or penlight
- cutting instrument (such as a carpet knife)
- marking pens (felt-tip pens with indelible ink)
- putty knife or other type of scraping instrument
- envelopes (of various sizes)
- cotton swabs
- airtight glass containers (of various sizes)
- labeling materials with adhesive backing
- plastic bags (such as zip-lock-type sandwich or freezer bags)
- evidence tags (usually available from your department’s arson investigator, fire marshal’s office, or local police department)
- small boxes (airtight if possible)
- one-gallon paint cans (must be purchased new from the manufacturer).