Fire Cause and Determination

Question: Who is responsible for fire cause and determination in your department, and what is the level of training?

As chief of fire prevention and, as such, Toledo’s fire marshal, I had the responsibility under the State Fire Code for determining the cause of every fire in the city. The code and the city charter permit me to delegate that responsibility to other trained individuals.

In Toledo, our certified firefighters designated as fire investigators are trained in fire cause and determination, have police powers, and carry firearms. Until two or three years ago, a team of four trained investigators and an officer managed our Fire Investigation Unit (FIU). Because of budget cuts, we now have only one investigator for the entire city.

The city administration is aware that with only one investigator, arrests and convictions will be down. The investigator has an extremely heavy case load. We hope that we will be able to bring back the other investigators soon. Four investigators and a full-time lieutenant seem to be the right size staff for a city of our size and with our fire frequency.

—John “Skip” Coleman, assistant chief, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue, is author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000), a technical editor of Fire Engineering, and a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board.

Thomas Dunne, deputy chief,
Fire Department of New York

Response: In New York City, our department fire marshals are responsible for investigating the cause and origin of fires. Our Bureau of Fire Investigation is staffed with approximately 100 marshals, all of whom are extensively trained. They initially receive several months of technical classroom instruction that includes examination of physical evidence at a fire scene along with investigative techniques, firearms training, and relevant law. This is followed by a period of working in the field alongside experienced marshals. Additional training is presented as needed to stay current with changes in the law or other technical specialties. Some marshals also attend the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) National Academy.

Our fire marshals have “police officer” status; as such, they are authorized to make arrests. Their education and experience also qualify them to appear in court as “expert” witnesses in arson trial cases. In addition, some are currently assigned to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.

All of our marshals start out as firefighters in the department. This provides them with a unique blend of expertise that combines police work, technical knowledge, and a fire background. Their efforts have contributed to reducing the number of fires and the prosecuting of arsonists. The only complaint I have regarding our marshals is that it seems like we just don’t have enough for a city of our size.

Rick Lasky, chief,
Lewisville (TX) Fire Department

Response: The City of Lewisville made a decision about 15 or so years ago to move forward with a “One-Stop Shop” approach for conducting business in fire prevention, code enforcement, building inspection/planning, etc. We moved the fire marshal and Fire Prevention Bureau (FPB) to City Hall and assigned them to the newly created (at the time) Community Development Department. The fire marshal at the time (with 30 years of experience) was named head of the department, which also took on the responsibility for code enforcement, animal control, building inspection, planning/zoning, and health, to name a few. So far, it has worked well.

It was quite an adjustment when I came here as chief and did not have the FPB in the department; but, aside from not having the more direct line of communication I was used to, it works well.

The responsibility for fire cause and determination and arson remains within the fire department. This division is headed by the division chief over the Bomb and Arson Division, who works a 40-hour week, Monday through Friday, and is on call for investigations and call duty. The majority of the time, three to five investigators are assigned to each shift (shift personnel trained as cause and origin and arson investigators). They receive a monthly stipend for this assignment. The division works with the Denton County Arson Task Force as well. The Bomb and Arson division chief coordinates training and continuing education. Both are offered as inside and outside training opportunities.

Craig H. Shelley,
fire protection advisor

Response: For our department, no one person is assigned to cause and origin investigations. After a major fire, a committee is formed to investigate not only the fire cause and origin but also all other contributory factors and the root causes. This committee is comprised of representatives from various organizations within the company. Preferably, the fire department representative is trained and certified in arson investigation. To this end, the department sends personnel to various schools and seminars. It is anticipated that a certification course will be conducted by third-party trainers during the next fiscal year to certify additional personnel as fire and explosion investigators.

When I worked in Vermont, state statute dictated that the fire chief was responsible for cause and origin determination. If a fire was considered suspicious, then the state police fire investigators were called in to further investigate. In cases where the chiefs were not trained or qualified to conduct these investigations, the state police were called to conduct the investigation. It is important that when different agencies have responsibilities, the agencies be familiar with the statutes and regulations pertaining to these varying responsibilities.

John O’Neal, chief,
Manassas Park (VA) Fire Department

Response: Our company officers are responsible for preliminary determination of fire cause for small property loss fires and the need for requesting an investigator for fires of unknown and suspicious origin, all large property loss fires, and fires resulting in an injury or a fatality.

Company officers are trained to the NFPA 1021, Standard for Fire Officer Professional Qualifications, fire officer I level, with basic knowledge and skills for preliminary fire cause determination. Our two primary fire investigators are trained to the NFPA 1033, Standard for Professional Qualifications for Fire Investigator, fire investigator level and are certified by the Commonwealth’s Fire Marshal Academy. Personnel attend the appropriate continuing education hours to maintain their certification levels and to stay current on industry trends and practices.

Jeffrey Schwering, lieutenant,
Crestwood (MO) Department of Fire Services

Response: Although our chief is ultimately responsible for identifying a fire’s origin, cause, and determination, our department has an additional five company officers certified as fire investigators by the State of Missouri. At least one of them is assigned to each shift.

Every fire in our city, regardless of type or size, is investigated to ensure proper origin and cause. Our investigators are required by the state to recertify every three years by taking a specified number of continuing education units (CEUs). All investigators are members of the International Association of Arson Investigators, the Professional Fire and Fraud Investigators Association, or both.

We also have numerous resources available to our investigators. If it is suspected that a fire is incendiary, our local police department becomes involved. The chief has the authority to call in the St. Louis County Bomb and Arson unit as well, if the situation warrants. Our goal is to ensure the safety of our citizens and our firefighters. Our fire investigators, from chief to lieutenant, are an integral part of completing this objective.

Christopher J. Weir, division chief,
Port Orange (FL) Department of Fire & Rescue

Response: My role as division chief/fire marshal involves many responsibilities, including determining origin and cause at all fire and hazardous incidents when requested by the incident commander (IC). However, in most cases, I respond to all working fires in Port Orange and am assigned on arrival as operations division or safety officer. Once the fire or hazard is brought under control, I change my hat to fire investigator and determine origin and cause. When the fire is determined to be intentionally set or the cause is undetermined with a suspicion of intentional setting, I request that a law enforcement/fire and explosion investigator from the state fire marshal’s office and a detective from the Port Orange Police Department respond and assist with criminal processing of the incident.

Prior to coming to Port Orange in 2005, I served as a lieutenant fire investigator with the Fort Lauderdale (FL) Fire-Rescue Department (1992-1997). I served as battalion chief of the FIU from 1997-2004, when I left the FIU to becomes division chief of operations B-Platoon. I continue to maintain compliance with NFPA 1033 standards. I have been a National Association of Fire Investigators (NAFI) certified fire and explosion investigator (CFEI) since 1999 and attended the National Fire Academy’s Fire/Arson Investigations and Management for Arson Prevention and Control; Initial Response to Terrorist and Suicide Bombings at New Mexico Tech’s Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center (EMRTC); and numerous state courses including juvenile fire setting, case management, court preparation, origin and cause, evidence preservation, managing fatal fires, fire service law, and incident management development at large-loss fires for fire investigators. NFPA 921, Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations, and Kirk’s Fire Investigation are my resource tools of the trade.

Gary Seidel, chief,
Hillsboro (OR) Fire Department

Response: Our fire inspectors are voluntarily assigned the role of fire investigation. Of the nine inspectors, five are assigned and compensated to take on the duties of a fire investigator in addition to their fire inspection responsibilities. They rotate the on-call investigation on a weekly basis. In a large fire scene investigation, they can call out additional investigators as needed. Our fire investigators conduct the origin and cause investigation. When needed, they work with an assigned police department detective on the criminal aspects of the case. The police detective is also trained in the duties and responsibilities of a fire investigator. Our fire investigators maintain the standards of NFPA 1033 and observe the guidelines in NFPA 921. Our inspector/investigators must meet Oregon Fire Investigation training requirements, which is NFPA Fire Investigation 1. In addition, our members are encouraged to further their fire investigation training by attending the National Fire Academy; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF); the Oregon Department of Public Safety standards and training; as well as seminars, conferences, and workshops.

Bobby Shelton, firefighter,
Cincinnati (OH) Fire Department

Response: Our fire cause and determination is handled by the Cincinnati Fire Department FIU. Members are line firefighters who have studied and passed a civil service exam for promotion to specialist. Once promoted, they are trained in all courses related to fire cause and determination and on interrogation techniques. They also attend the 24-week Cincinnati Police Department police recruit academy, since they have police powers and carry firearms.

Matt Weil, captain,
North Oakland County (MI) Fire Authority

Response: It is my understanding that by Michigan law, the fire chief or designate is responsible. The chief’s job description states that the chief or his designates are responsible for determining the cause of all fires in our district. That having been said, our past and current practice is to use the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office. It has a skilled unit of trained fire investigators, as well as accelerant sniffing dogs. It is difficult for a small department, such as ours, to send people to receive the training needed. I don’t know of a department in our area that does not ultimately use the sheriff’s office for this service.

George H. Potter,
fire protection specialist, Spain

Response: Here in Spain, the fire departments do not have legal competencies in fire cause determination or investigation. The national police and the civil guard (Guardia Civil) have technicians assigned by the courts to perform investigations in suspected fires. This is in accordance with the Spanish legislation.

Most publicized fires have been blamed on “electrical short circuits,” according to the “fire safety educated” journalists; there are little or no further comments.

Most of these police technicians have university-level chemistry education and have taken some fire protection specialization several-day courses that offer a lot of hands-on extinction exercises but no in-depth information on fire cause determination. Quite a few of these officers have had to pay for specialized training out of their own pockets.

A few major regional and municipal fire departments have made timid efforts into investigation procedures: the Catalunya regional service, the Albacete provincial brigade, and the Madrid and Vitoria municipal services (the Vitoria Fire Department was the pioneer in this activity). One major fire protection consultancy, ITSEMAP (of the MAPFRE insurance group), has delivered fire investigation courses, and the Spanish national firefighters association, ASELF, has a theoretical/practical course on fire cause investigation.

Specialized consultants can be contracted. Judges, district attorneys, and insurers frequently use their services. The too-well-known problem here is that the specialist is most often contracted days or weeks after the incident.

Jim Grady III, chief,
Frankfort (IL) Fire District

Response: Our Bureau of Investigation investigates fires. We also request our MABAS Division 19 Investigation Team, if necessary. The Arson Task Force consists of multiple agencies that include the ATF, the state fire marshal, the bomb squad, the police, the state attorney’s office, and other experts. Our in-house investigators work on a regular basis with our state fire marshal’s team as well as the local police agencies.

The investigators must be at a minimum Illinois certified fire and/or arson investigators, firefighter level 2 or 3. They must be trained in weapons of mass destruction, and bomb and arson and photography are preferred. The intention of having in-house and division teams is to pair up with experts and have access to a wide variety of experts in the fields of investigation. The cooperative efforts have paid off. I feel that this type of background has enhanced our working with insurance investigators. I verified this with our Bureau Chief of Support Operations Larry Rauch.

Derek Williams, captain/health and safety officer, Mesa (AZ) Fire Department

Response: Three full-time investigators are assigned to our Fire Prevention Division. Each works a regular “workweek” and is assigned to one shift (A, B, or C) to respond after hours for fire investigation. The level of training includes Arizona firefighter I and II certification, completion of the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training (AZ-POST) Academy, as well as International Code Council fire code certification.

They are dispatched to all structure fires as part of an automatic “working fire response.” This allows them to arrive on-scene quickly (usually just prior to “fire under control”) and begin investigating the scene immediately. This includes interviews at the scene with the initial responding units while the event’s facts are still fresh in their minds.

Another duty of the investigators is to enforce noncompliant fire code violations through a criminal citation process, as part of the Mesa Prosecution Team. This is a mission-critical activity and directly affects the safety of the public and the responding crews.

Because of the investigators’ almost immediate response, fire scene evidence is preserved, salvage and overhaul operations can begin as soon as possible without disrupting the chain of evidence, and crews can be placed back in service sooner. Through the efforts of the inspectors and the investigators, many issues that had the potential to cause firefighter harm or death have been mitigated. Having a full-time fire prevention division has definitely paid big dividends.

Paul Hoyle, lieutenant,
Portsmouth (VA) Fire, Rescue, and Emergency Services

Response: The IC may take responsibility for fire cause and determination or may delegate it to a company officer if the fire is straightforward, arson is not suspected, dollar loss is not extreme, and there are no injuries or fatalities. If the cause is not simple or involves injuries, fatalities, arson, or high dollar loss, the FPB is called to the scene to investigate, assisted by companies at the scene. Any time officers are unsure of or uncomfortable with the situation, they are free to request the bureau’s assistance.

All members of the FPB are certified to NFPA 1033 standards as a minimum; most have additional training through the National Fire Academy, regional arson investigation panels, and other venues.

Michael J. Lopina, lieutenant,
Lockport Township (IL) Fire Protection District

Response: Our department has an in-house fire investigation team consisting of 11 members, all trained and certified by the Illinois state fire marshal to a minimum of fire/arson investigator III. Two of the members are also certified as peace officers through the Illinois Police Training Institute; this streamlines and facilitates arson investigations and arrests. In a major incident, outside resources in the form of the MABAS Division 19 Cause & Origin Team and the Office of the State Fire Marshal (OSFM) are brought in. Most cases, however, are handled in-house.

The division has a special vehicle outfitted and dedicated solely to fire investigation and its needs. Additionally, it uses the Illinois State Police Crime lab to process the results. The crime lab is one town away; a member involved in the investigation takes the samples there directly to further protect the chain of custody. All of this has proved beneficial; the team has successfully investigated hundreds of incidents, large and small, since its inception and also made several arrests and obtained convictions for arson fires.

In addition to fire investigation, the two members trained as peace officers are responsible for the background checks of all potential hires. Their thorough work has weeded out potential problems that most likely would have been missed or overlooked by an outside agency.

B. Keith Singles, firefighter,
Hampton (VA) Fire Department

Response: The FPB (fire marshal’s office) is responsible for cause and determination of all fire-related incidents, suspicious or otherwise, within the city. Its members are also called to assist mutual-aid jurisdictions if needed. The bureau, headed by a battalion chief, consists of a team of career and volunteer investigators and fire inspectors who through the course of any given day inspect two to four businesses. The personnel assigned to the FPB receive certification in accordance with NFPA 1031 and 1033. They are also required to take core module classes through the Housing and Community Development Association.

The fire investigators enforce all fire and building codes in business establishments whose owners choose to bend the rules and sometimes try to get away with what they consider a minor infraction. If this happens, the fire investigator can file charges against the business owner, and the owner can be placed in custody if the violation constitutes an arrest. At least half of the personnel in the FPB have the same arrest powers as a sworn police officer.

When suppression forces conduct their monthly preincident surveys and find what they believe might be a violation, they or the company officer in charge that day have a duty to inform the FPB of the suspicion so they can follow up with an inspection of that business. So in a roundabout way, every member of the fire department is responsible for fire prevention and cause and determination.

William L. Bingham, chief,
Boynton Beach (FL) Fire Rescue Department

Response: Although often understated as a critical component affecting fire operations, the role of investigator plays a pivotal role in fire prevention and, subsequently, in the safety of firefighters and the community. From the initial assessment to analysis of burn patterns and burning rates to developing fire models that are shared in the interest of life safety, the role of the fire investigator as a forensic reconstructionist and educator is integral to our overall objective. All members of our Fire and Life Safety Division—fire marshal, assistant fire marshals, fire protection engineers, and fire inspectors—are qualified and certified to serve as investigators for fire cause and determination. Specific training includes programs necessary for Florida state certification: Fire Prevention Practices, Private Fire Protection, Building Construction, Blueprint Reading, and Codes and Standards. This curriculum provides the foundation for fire investigation.

In addition to routine on-the-job training, attendance is required at courses provided by government sources and trade organizations such as the NAFI and the IAAI. All our fire investigators are NAFI CFEIs. We have recently incorporated three fire protection engineers into our FLS staff. This has allowed us to focus on a “fire systems” approach to inspection and investigation for improved effectiveness, better concentration, and appreciation of fire protection systems as they relate to inspections and investigations and enhanced long-term fire safety for our community.

Skip Heflin, captain/training officer,
Hall County (GA) Fire Services Fire Academy

Response: Our department has a division dedicated to fire prevention, investigation, education, and inspection. When members are promoted into the division, they have varying levels of training. The department has no certification requirements. After being appointed, the member is expected to obtain the requisite certifications. The state of Georgia uses the NPQ exam as the state certification exam. The minimum requirements for certification are arson level 1 and 2 (80 hours each). The state requires those employed as investigators to be certified. The state requires 40 recertification hours each year, which presents a challenge to many who are certified, because members have more than one certification. So, the challenge becomes how to maintain your certifications and perform job tasks during the year.

The division has an on-call rotation wherein each member is on call for one week. If the department responds to any type of fire, the on-call investigator is notified. After receiving information on the call, the investigator determines if an immediate response is warranted. All structure fires are investigated.

Kevin Lanford, battalion chief,
Orange Beach (AL) Fire Rescue

Response: In our department, cause determination is the responsibility of the fire marshal or deputy fire marshal. Successful completion of the Alabama fire investigator certification course constitutes minimum certification. In reality, both these individuals have had advanced training, including National Fire Academy courses, Alabama Association of Arson Investigator training, and “shadowing” investigators from other jurisdictions in our area (because of a low number of fires in our city).

Paul J. Urbano, captain,
Anchorage (AK) Fire Department

Response: Our company officers are primarily responsible for performing origin and cause investigations. During these investigations, company officers are responsible for scene preservation, scene photographs, evidence collection, witness statements, and completion of an accurate investigation report.

Company officer candidates receive basic-level investigation training in the company officer academy. Company officers and other department members receive in-service training from department fire investigators on a recurring basis. Some department members choose to receive additional training outside the fire department to attain the level of State of Alaska fire investigator.

According to the fire investigation policy, a fire investigator is required to respond to the scene based on the following investigator callout criteria:

  • fire deaths or serious fire injuries (firefighter or civilian),
  • all second-alarm or greater structure fires or hazardous materials releases,
  • fires in which Command cannot determine the cause and the dollar loss exceeds $250,000,
  • explosions and bombings,
  • when requested by a law enforcement agency, and
  • when an arson suspect is detained on-scene.

Note: Investigator callout is based only on the above criteria; an investigator is not called on the basis of suspicion of arson alone.

Anchorage Fire Department fire investigators are trained and certified as Alaskan peace officers with authority to investigate all crimes. The training and certification meet requirements outlined by the Alaska Police Standards Counsel.

Additionally, the department has a specially trained accelerant detection canine; the fire investigator or duty chief is responsible for requesting it.

Rick Mosher, lieutenant,
Merriam (KS) Fire Department

Response: In Kansas, most fire departments or fire districts have fire marshals who are charged with fire cause and determination. Most fire marshals function at a chief-officer level within their organizations and have full law enforcement powers. Kansas fire investigators must attend the Kansas Highway Patrol (KHP) Academy in Salina for initial training. Kansas allows for two levels of training in fire investigation. Level 1 requires 80 hours of fire investigation training and 80 hours of law enforcement training. Level 2 fire investigators must meet the level-one requirement and have an additional 80 hours of firearms training through KHP. Levels 1 and 2 require 20 hours each year of continuing education. Level 2 also requires four hours of firearms qualifying/training each year. Our department is allowed unlimited level 1 fire investigators and four level 2 fire investigators.

Our fire marshal heads the fire investigation team, which includes two level 2 fire investigators and one level 1 fire investigator. Our department goal has been to maintain one fire investigator per shift in addition to the fire marshal. Our current fire investigation team consists of one chief officer (fire marshal), a captain, and a driver/operator. Normally, the shift fire investigator handles small fire investigations on the respective shift, and the fire investigation team investigates all structural fires and fire-related deaths.

Ron Hiraki, assistant chief,
Gig Harbor (WA) Fire & Medic One

Response: Our department does not conduct its own fire investigations. Our service area is a 54-square-mile suburban area that includes Gig Harbor and unincorporated Pierce County. Code enforcement and fire investigation authority are the responsibilities of the Pierce County fire marshal or the Gig Harbor fire marshal. Gig Harbor has contracted with the Pierce County fire marshal to do its fire investigations.

According to Pierce County Fire Marshal Wayne Wienholz, the deputy fire marshals are trained to conduct fire code inspections and fire investigations. All of the deputies have years of training and are IAAI and Washington state- certified fire investigators. The training courses for these deputies are certified and tested through IAAI, the Northwest Fire Investigators, and other accredited organizations. The Pierce County deputy fire marshals are also qualified examiners for state fire investigation certification training and are trained according to NFPA 921. The deputy fire marshals receive ongoing training. The county regularly sends each deputy fire marshal to at least one major course that focuses on NFPA 921 topics.

Mike Mason, lieutenant,
Downers Grove (IL) Fire Department

Response: Our fire investigation system provides for the response of fire and arson investigators to all fires. A good number of experienced and talented investigators from our department and neighboring departments respond in a timely manner. This is accomplished in several ways. First, department fire investigators are state certified and fully sworn arson peace officers with arrest capabilities; they work with our local law enforcement agencies. The training for arson investigators is through the Police Training Institute (PTI) in Illinois. In addition to conducting investigations for the department, several of our fire and arson investigators routinely investigate additional fires through well-established engineering and insurance firms in the private sector. In addition, some of our investigators are also trained as juvenile specialists.

Our officers and firefighters are trained in and committed to preserving the scene—recognizing the importance of preserving the scene, its contents, and the placement of contents within a structure as best as we can immediately after extinguishment.

Our fire investigation teams are on call 24/7. Investigators are usually assigned through a rotating list to provide constant coverage. Three investigators—one assigned as an arson investigator—are assigned a specific number of days. Off-duty investigators are usually notified of multialarm fires at the request of the IC. On-duty investigators secure the scene while preserving and collecting information for other arriving investigators. Two investigators usually are initially assigned; additional investigators are requested through the IC at the request of the initial fire investigators.

Our investigators also respond mutual aid. Arson fires require intricate coordination with fire, police, and state agencies and task forces. In some cases, ATF and other federal agencies become involved, depending on the severity and the specifics regarding arson or other crimes.

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