BY BRETT M. MARTINEZ
Fortunately for firefighters and line officers, fatal fire incidents are not an everyday occurrence. But when they do occur, fire companies and, in particular, line officers must still do what needs to be done. Once a fatal fire incident is extinguished, performing simple actions will not only help to maintain the scene for further investigation but will also help to solve the mystery of what occurred.
The primary assignments of all firefighters-the search for life and the extinguishment of the fire (what should be considered the first phase)-are well known. In fatal fires, the difficult and unfamiliar work begins during the second phase (the overhaul operation). Fatal fire incidents are not always the biggest fires or the longest suppression operations, but they are almost always remembered. In a fatal fire, someone has died of unnatural causes that need to be further investigated. The fire scene has become a death investigation, and that investigation will take precedence over any other substantiating factor. That death investigation, which has now become the second phase of the operation, will involve personnel many firefighters have not dealt with before and require attention to details they may not have considered before. The public safety professionals who deal with death investigations may be special investigators with the state police or local police department homicide detectives, who will have a list of questions for those involved with the first phase of the fire operation.
In addition, there will be personnel from the coroner and/or medical examiner’s office as well as crime scene and forensic specialists. Last, but no less important, will be the familiar fire investigator. Each agency represented will have to accomplish specific things and address specific concerns. The ability of these public safety professionals to achieve their ultimate goals (determining the cause of the fire and the manner of death) will hinge on the actions you took during phase one and, just as important, phase two of the fire scene operation.
CONSIDERATIONS FOR PHASE 2
After the safety of responding personnel and the public has been established, all firefighting personnel should focus on the death of the victim(s). For the fire suppression companies, this phase is as important as the critical minutes leading up to putting the wet stuff on the red stuff. Once the fire is completely knocked down, you should be thinking of what you can do to help preserve the scene. The actions taken should be part of a team effort or a joint operation even if the second phase of the fire does not progress with the speed and urgency of the fire suppression phase.
Try to think of the death investigation as a major event or a Type I or II incident [as explained by the National Incident Management System (NIMS) standards]. It is not uncommon for multiple agencies and disciplines to be involved, slowing the entire operation. Death investigation teams do not operate under the rapid response concepts that fire suppression teams do. Their response requires multiple notifications and the involvement of numerous agencies. This takes time to organize and will affect the response. In addition, the required methodical process of a death investigation will appear to the untrained eye as though the entire operations has ground to a screeching halt.
In a death investigation, no item is too trivial and no piece of evidence is too small-no stone should be left unturned. Once the investigators relinquish control of that scene, anything left behind is lost. Even a fire scene that looks simple has numerous items and factors that need to be thoroughly investigated. Fire scenes are confusing by their nature. The destruction and damage that occur during the fire and the suppression operation hide most indicators and evidence related to fire cause and manner of death. This confusion and uncertainty necessitate that the scene be dealt with in a very slow and methodical manner. To avoid missing anything, the scene will be thoroughly checked and rechecked for any missed or unseen evidence.
In addition, when individuals from varying institutional backgrounds who have rarely, if ever, worked with fire personnel are working within the same space, attitudes can get in the way of the operation. As with any major event, coordination is critical. For example, once fire suppression is complete, no evidence should be taken from the scene before the body is removed. The body should not be removed before the medical examiner performs a preliminary exam and makes the pronouncement of death.
As always, verbal communication is the key to success. The fire incident commander (IC) must express his intentions to the leader of the death investigation team, and the investigator must express his intention to the IC. For example, the IC must inform the death investigator if the body was moved and, if so, why. This will have to be explained if there is a trial. In addition, the IC must explain, if overhaul is not yet completed, why a unit must remain on-scene until all pockets of fire are confirmed as extinguished. In return, the death investigators must indicate how long it will take to process the scene so that the IC can arrange to leave a suppression or an overhaul team on-scene. The death investigator must also stipulate which personnel are to be interviewed before the shift changes or personnel are released for home.
HOW TO PRESERVE THE FIRE SCENE
A growing concern within the fire investigation community is that although most fatal fires are determined to be accidental, “undetermined cause” is the fastest growing category of causes for fatal fires.1 With all the advancements in forensic science and crime scene investigation, the number of undetermined fatal fire causes should be going down, but the opposite appears to be occurring. Many factors lead investigators to list the cause of fire as undetermined. In some cases, the actions of uninformed fire suppression personnel hinder investigations.
Scene preservation is one of the key components of fatal fire investigations. It is the scene that indicates to the investigator what happened and will provide the answers to many questions, such as, Was the victim asleep at the time of fire? If not, why wasn’t the victim able to get out? Was the victim physically restrained or bedridden, or was the escape route blocked or obstructed? Answers to these questions and others can be lost if proper steps are not taken to preserve as much of the scene as possible. As an example, clues relative to the cause of death, such as drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes, may be found under or in close proximity to the body.
Try to approach the fire scene after suppression operations have been completed in the same manner as you would for an interior fire attack. Many fire academies train firefighters to attack from the area of least damage to the area of greatest damage. The same concept should hold for scene preservation: The most damaged areas or locations holding victims’ bodies should be disturbed least during overhaul. If this sounds contrary to what you were taught in overhaul training, remember this is not the normal situation. We are talking about a fatal fire/death investigation, and the rules are different.
Have a fire company stand by to handle any rekindling of the fire while the death investigation is proceeding. Limiting the use of gas-powered tools will help the investigation based on the fact that arsonists often use gasoline as an accelerant. If you introduce gasoline to the fire scene, it may call into question any use of gasoline by the arsonist. Any evidence pertaining to an accelerant might have to be discarded because of potential cross contamination from overhaul operations. If gas-powered tools were used during fire suppression operations, be sure to document the locations in which they were used and pass the information on to the fire investigators. To avoid potential cross contamination, do not allow personnel who fill gas-powered tools to enter the scene.
Establish scene security. Limit access to the investigation scene to those with assigned tasks. Limiting the personnel who enter the scene will reduce speculation about actions taken at the scene. If personnel accountability systems are in place, most fire departments will have a good idea of who entered the scene and what task they performed. Fire suppression personnel can specifically identify what they brought in and used within the scene. Any outside influence or contamination can taint all investigative efforts.
Following are some suggestions for implementing scene security.
• For prolonged overhaul operations, consider setting up a decontamination line for cleaning of the boots of all personnel entering the scene. This policy alone will cause some who do not need to enter the scene to think twice before doing so.
• After the fire is knocked down, maintain a log of personnel who enter the overhaul area and the times they entered. This will create a record of all actions taken during the second-phase operations.
• Designate one way in and one way out.
• Initially, establish an ample exclusion zone using barrier tape or uncommitted vehicles to block roads and access points and personnel as guards until law enforcement arrives. Inves-tigators can adjust the size of the area as they work. Civilians and the media should not be allowed to enter the secured scene.
Instruct fire personnel not to talk with reporters. Any press releases from the fire incident command should be limited to the fire suppression activity, not the investigatory aspect of the incident.
DESIGNATING THE LOCATION OF THE VICTIMS
If the dead victim must be moved-because of the threat of a building collapse, for example-note the area from which the body was recovered, and report it to the investigators. Make every effort to document what the firefighters encountered as soon as possible. Keep a pen or pencil with a small notepad and ruler in a plastic bag (to keep them clean and dry) in your turnout gear or apparatus. Include the following in the notes:
• Describe the conditions firefighters encountered during search operations. Use a diagram to indicate where the body was found within the room. This will be helpful to investigators looking for evidence or clues usually found below the victim’s body.
• Note any items/structural characteristics found within the area of the victim-bed, dresser, door threshold, or window, for example.
• Identify the room in which the victim(s) was found. Include the floor level and the position of the body before it was moved.
• Note if doors/windows were locked or unlocked.
• Include the names of witnesses and their contact information.
PRESERVING ITEMS AND OTHER EVIDENCE
Isolate and secure items of clothing on or in close proximity to the victim. They may contain information pertaining to the victim’s identification or the cause of the fire or death, which may or may not be the fire.
The scene may also contain vital evidence such as the victim’s teeth and bones, if the victim was severely burned. This is another reason overhaul at fatal fires should be limited to the bare minimum-extinguishing visible fire.
If the scene is going to be lost to fire or collapse, you may want to photograph the scene so investigators can view the progression of fire. When photographing a scene for investigation purposes, focus on the structure and the fire’s progression. Do not photograph firefighters working. Photographs should show two sides of the structure. You can do this by standing at the corners-for example, about 100 to 150 feet back from the exposure 1 and 2 corner. This will allow for a good view of both sides and keep the photographer away from most of the suppression operation. If possible, take an aerial photo of the structure from an aerial platform or surrounding structure. When these distances cannot be achieved, you can photograph from on top of apparatus or neighboring structures. If it is not possible to take photos from a corner, try to include a fixed reference such as a street lamp, a tall building, or a natural land feature visible on the exposure 1 side that could also be referenced in the photo of the exposure 2 or 4 side. Whenever possible, a visual reference should be repeated in all five views.
Fires involving fatalities are stressful for responders. The incident commanders should consider making a critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) team available to all responders. Check with your county or state mental health agencies to identify the availability of these teams within your jurisdiction.
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These simple, yet overlooked actions can be helpful to all responders when an incident necessitates establishing joint operations and unified command.
1. McLoughlin, James M. and Brett M. Martinez, “Fire Fatalities: One County’s Perspective,” Fire Engineering, Jan. 2005, 47-54.
■ BRETT M. MARTINEZ, a veteran of the fire service since 1983, is a fire marshal for the Suffolk County (NY) Fire Rescue and Emergency Services. He has served in various departments as a dispatcher, a structural firefighter, and an instructor. He is a state of New York-certified Level II fire investigator and peace officer and ATF certified to train and deploy Suffolk County’s accelerant detection canine. He has an associate’s degree in fire science from Suffolk County Community College and is the author of Multiple Fire Setters: The Process of Tracking and Identification (Fire Engineering, 2002).