THE VOLUNTEERS CORNER
NOTHING is more disheartening to a fire investigator than to enter a burnedout room that has been swept clean of debris. Somewhere outside he may find a disordered pile of charred wood, furniture and small articles that once might have been evidence. We can only guess where things were when the fire started— and guessing isn’t the way to determine the cause of a fire.
The individual fireman often doesn’t realize the importance of his actions in the successful investigation of a fire. When some authorities are reporting an increase in the crime of arson, it becomes increasingly important to fix the cause of every fire. And the investigator can use every bit of help available.
This means that the fireman’s responsibility starts while riding a truck to the fire. What is the color of the smoke?: This may give an early clue to the cause of the fire. Is the color compatible with the type of structure or contents burning?: Black smoke, usually denoting a petroleum fuel, might not be easily explained when it comes from a wood frame structure with Class A contents. But the investigator has to have a definite description of the smoke before he can pursue this line of inquiry. Where was the greatest amount of smoke first seen?: The fireman should retain a mental picture of the fire scene as he approached. It can be helpful to know where flames were first noted to help trace the path.
It can be pretty discouraging to hear firemen say that the “flames were around in back.” And worse, sometimes you get conflicting answers to questions from men who are trying to be helpful but just didn’t observe carefully. It’s important to know just what part of the “back” was burning—on what floor or floors; were the flames coming through the roof, or were they contained on the first or second floor?
One of the difficult things to get agreement on sometimes is whether doors and windows were locked when entry was made. It may seem surprising, but at times, it isn’t even easy to find the first man to actually enter the building.
Of course, you can lay this indefiniteness of witness-firemen to excitement and the pressure of stretching lines. But this explanation doesn’t help the investigator. If the fireman realizes his responsibility for investigation, he can train himself to be a more accurate observer.
Once in the building, firemen should be alert to notice details. True, the volume of smoke may limit observation, but the smoke eventually is cleared out. In arson cases, there is sometimes more than one fire in the building, and this must be positively noted. The color of the flames will mean something to the investigator.
There are times when you enter a burning building and things just don’t look right. This is the time to sharpen your observation and make mental notes of what you see. Was the fire “running” or was the intensity of the fire “spotty?” The investigator will want to know because these are the bits of evidence that add up to conclusions or turn his attention to different paths of inquiry. . . What about the positions of furnishings? . . .Was anything out of its expected place so that it blocked an entrance?. . . Were there articles of furniture that obviously must have been removed from the room before the fire? If everything is removed from the room after the fire, the investigator may never be able to positively say what was in the room or what was not.
Salvage, of course, is an important part of the fire fighting, and the cleaning up of the fire area is a service that wins public acclaim for a fire department. But it is one thing to clean out an area before the cause of the fire is known and it is another to pause until a determination of the cause of the fire can be made.
We will not go into the procedure of fire investigation. But we do wish to emphasize the point that the success of a fire investigation often is based on the actions of the men who fought the fire. You can’t always avoid structural disturbance when getting to the seat of a fire, but you can remember what was ripped out and what you did with it.
When evidence pointing to arson is found, then it should be called to the attention of the company officer at once. If it can be left in its original position, then it should be guarded until the investigator arrives.
If the evidence must be moved because of fire fighting necessity, then it should be guarded and marked so that it can be identified at a later date. You must be able to testify that it was that particular pail that you found; you must be able to say that the pail offered in evidence is not one of thousands like it.
We’ve mentioned some of the things that the fireman should remember after the fire is out. It might be well to sound a note of caution: If you are not positive about a fact, don’t try to be helpful by “thinking” that fact existed. That will only impede an investigator and send him down a blind alley.
If every fireman keeps his eyes open, knows what to look for and retains a clear memory of what he sees, then fire investigations will be far more effective than they ever have been.