FIRE INVESTIGATION A Team Effort
FIRE SERVICE MANAGERS operate a high-risk public service in a highly litigious society. While it takes some period of time to develop an efficient investigation unit, there is much to be said for having the fire investigation process under the supervision of those who should know the most about how fire behaves—the fire service itself. While there is no single best way to operate a fire department investigation service, I will offer suggestions to fire service managers w ho are either considering moving the function to lawenforcement or looking toward restructuring existing investigative procedures.
POLICE OFFICERS OR FIRE OFFICERS?
Some fire departments contend that fire investigators should be certified police officers. Most people are familiar with police officers asking questions, determining whether there is probable cause for arrest, and then making the arrest. This seems to be a logical progression of events for solving arson cases. It’s true that police officers are more experienced in criminal investigations. However, many fire scene investigations do not involve crime. The fire investigator also must have the knowledge to assist in determining civil liability, code enforcement and/or infractions, code variances, and whether the fire cause was accidental or natural.
Any public officer who has a legitimate need to know about a certain public topic is empowered to ask questions and write or record witness statements (a signed release, notarized, is sufficient evidence of a voluntary statement); yet people tend to trust a nonpolice investigator more because there are no threats of arrest made, no Miranda warnings read, and no handcuffs or weapons present. The atmosphere is
much less threatening to those being questioned, and thus they are more likely to give accurate answers to investigators’ questions.
SETTING UP AN INTERAGENCY TEAM
Don’t wait until an important incident occurs to formulate a plan of action in the field. The fire investigation section should approach law enforcement agencies, state attorneys, and the medical examiner or coroner as soon as possible to establish an investigative team and detailed field investigative procedures. If each agency establishes confidence in the other agencies’ specialized expertise, then police officers will not have to speculate on cause of death, fire investigators will not have to concentrate on police procedures, and medical examiners will not have to worry about fire cause and origin.
Who heads the team is determined by the political entity in which the incident occurs. However, it is not uncommon for the fire investigators to head, or coordinate, the investigation proceedings if the investigation surrounds a significant fire event. Again, much depends on the confidence that each player has in the other players’ areas of expertise.
MANAGING THE FIRE SCENE
A significant fire scene calls for a scene manager. A scene manager, equivalent to an incident commander, cooperates with all investigating agencies and defines and maintains the investigation area. One means of maintaining area security is a contamination list: a log that all employees from public and private agencies are required to sign as they enter and leave the area. Name, agency, and interest should be noted on the list.
The scene manager also determines what information to release to the media. He condenses the positions of all involved agencies into a unified philosophy for media release. The philosophy usually follows the position of the most restrictive agency on site. Remember, most public records laws do not require the uncontrolled release of public information; rather, they provide for release of suitable information in a timely manner. Make sure that information is made available to all news sources at the same time.
The private and public sectors usually have different interests in the fire scene. Nevertheless, in the process of fact finding each group must have access to certain evidence. The scene manager should determine what evidence and areas are accessible to the private sector.
Evidence needs proper identification. The scene manager keeps track of which public agency has what evidence. If the scene is complicated, each agency may wish to examine or have tests performed on the same piece of evidence, but methods or testing agencies may vary. The scene manager coordinates the different interests and keeps tabs on evidence.
The scene manager should maintain a list of qualified expert witnesses. For example, a retired licensed electrical contractor can determine electrical craftsmanship matters. Likewise, list dependable chemical, mechanical, and other professional services in a resource book. When a fire investigation requires a particular technical discipline, use that resource to ensure credible courtroom testimony at a later date.
Personal relief facilities—food, liquids, warmth, cooling-off areas, toilet facilities, and support manpower and equipment—are also the responsibility of the scene manager. Designate interview areas as well. Whether they are rooms borrowed from some nearby business or from communications or hazardous-materials vehicles, they should be big enough to spread out papers, maps, and building plans and to accommodate two to three interviewers and the witness.
MAKING A THOROUGH INVESTIGATION
The following steps are designed to help direct the investigator to find fact—not to help decide whether people or structures performed properly:
- Determine the history of the fire from the incipient stage to extinguishment. An event chart is a handy tool to help determine what happens before and after the alarm is turned in to the fire dispatch office (see Figure 1 on page 53 for a sample chart).
- Identify the procedures firefighters used in combating, controlling, and finally extinguishing the fire. Remember that this is a fact-finding task; unless specifically commissioned by fire department management, investigators should not determine whether the procedures were followed properly.
- Identify die item or process that caused the ignition. Identify what was ignited. The fire investigator traces the path the fire travels until it runs out of fuel or is halted by fire suppression efforts. This process is often called “source and origin” or “fire cause determination.”
- Determine how the structure, process, and equipment involved in the fire performed during the fire. The question is not so much ivhether they performed properly or as designed but rather exactly how they performed.
- Determine whether the structure, process, and equipment were constructed or installed in accordance with approved plans or instructions.
- Determine the exact circumstances surrounding a victim’s injury or death. What was the victim doing immediately before and during the events leading to death, and what happened to the victim after death? Of great significance here is identification of the information fire investigators need from an autopsy. Fire investigators may ask for different information than homicide investigators.
Note that, up to this point, no mention has been made whether the incident at hand is of a criminal or civil nature. The question of whether the crime of arson has been committed depends on answers to the preceding questions. The significance of the questions becomes apparent only after they are proposed.
Photographs are generally accepted as the method of permanently documenting visual evidence. Audiotape recorders permanently document interviews as well as procedures followed by individual investigators. Hand-held camcorders are excellent tools for documenting evidence. Consider that each videocassette, when processed on quality video stop-action equipment, can replace from 500,000 to 700,000 still photos. If asked in advance, most witnesses will even agree to videotaped interviews.
Videotape the entire scene in detail before moving anything. In the case of a death, assign one camera person to follow investigators’ every move as they survey the scene. Fire investigations are similar to an archaeological dig: As the investigator discovers the contents of various layers, the video camera should record all verbal explanations and descriptions of everything the investigator finds.
Be sure to document circumstances that do not have any immediate significance. It is highly probable that some randomly documented facts will become meaningful later on.
GENERATING A REPORT
Any incident requires filing some minimum investigation report. What the report contains is a function of department policy. Consult the National Fire Incident Reporting System for suggestions. To determine when to file a major report, establish a property damage standard that might tend to result in litigation. In one community the damage might be S5,000; in another, it might be SI5,000. Any time there is bodily damage an investigation is also warranted. Injuries triggering investigations need not be limited to burns. Finally, any instance of code violation or death mandates a significant and complete investigation as well. (See Figure 2 for a step-by-step guide to the investigation process.)
Remember that the final report is a finding of facts gathered by the various agency investigators. If management requests an analysis of the performance of the investigation, a secondary report should be filed. Ideally, the evaluation report should be conducted by personnel other than those associated with the finding of facts.
WORKING WITH LAW ENFORCEMENT
There are times when the fire investigator interfaces with law enforcement. In most states, law enforcement has an advantage over fire investigation: It is not forced to share with the public information obtained during an investigation if such information has criminal overtones. On the other hand, fire investigators usually are subject to public records laws, by which any citizen demanding to review the gathered facts is permitted do so.
When the fire investigator senses a criminal element or a possibility of criminal proceedings, it is time to call in and share the information with law enforcement personnel. Most police technical units are well-equipped and trained in the process of documentation. Thus fire investigators should sign over all of the evidence they discover during fire investigation to law enforcement. This way the evidence is shielded from the public until the investigation concludes.
Fire investigators must take the lead in establishing a liaison with other investigative agencies responding to significant fires involving deaths, injury, or major crimes. A team effort to document evidence, interview witnesses, and record and coordinate findings will lead to a smoother investigative operation.