Training, Equipment Needs of Arson Investigation Team

Training, Equipment Needs of Arson Investigation Team


Although the fire had been extinguished, there was other work still to be done. This was no ordinary fire, but a suspected case of arson. Of the more than $4 billion dollars in fire losses each year in the United States, 40 percent is thought to be the result of arson. Why is such a large percentage “thought” to be arson and not proven to be?

The answer lies in the framework of the typical fire department and the aid it receives from the police department. If the two departments do not work closely together, then an effective arson investigative team is impossible. Without cross-training between the two disciplines, investigation is hampered, if not impossible. And without awareness of both fire fighting and police problems there will be few arsonists brought to trial.

A close look at arson investigation shows the need for trained personnel from the fire department on duty at all times. But one man cannot handle a state, a county or even a city with any semblance of efficiency. Adequate staffing of the arson team is necessary. To trade off manpower as a means of reducing payroll is a direct invitation for another fire to go unrecorded as an arson.

Training required

What training does this special group of investigators need? Each department may have its own answers, but, loyalty to the status quo must be put aside and the answers should be founded on a broader foundation than fire fighting skills. Extensive training in crime scene investigation should be mandatory. ‘Phis is offered by most large municipality police academies and it might be beneficial for the arson team to attend the entire police recruit school. The fire fighter has now been introduced to the laws of the state, city ordinances, crime scene investigation, proper apprehension techniques and the necessity of full detail reports.

Many departments overlook the value of the forensic chemist in training their men. The chemist not only will ultimately analyze the evidence, but can also offer invaluable suggestions as to the proper collection and storage of evidence as well as guidelines to the capabilities of instruments to detect accelerents. How many times has evidence been disregarded because of the old (and incorrect) adage: “If you can’t smell it, don’t collect it”? A good investigator collects all possible evidence and allows the laboratory to determine if it is useful or not. Once a crime scene is destroyed, no more evidence can ever be collected.

Now that the need for trained manpower has been established, what about equipment? Some departments go so far as to equip mobile vans with the newest sophisticated equipment for their arson experts, while others make no effort to supply even the basics. How unfortunate that even adequate collection vessels are denied to investigators.

Desirable equipment

The investigators are most knowledgeable as to what is needed and it would pay the departments to heed their requests. Beside expensive equipment such as a volatile vapor detector, less expensive equipment can be acquired to help with the job. A small suitcase can be outfitted to hold a variety of tools: ax for removing flooring with lines of demarcation, pliers, screwdrivers, voltmeter, measuring tape, sabre-saw and blades, grease pencils, magnifying glass, plastic bags, vacutainer cubes, and most important—airtight containers. The tighter the seal the more useful the container. Baby food jars and clean, unused paint cans will suffice, as well as mason jars, a seal being necessary to maintain the integrity of the sample collected. Yet, how many fire departments have even purchased a case of mason jars?

If funds are “severely” limited, the police department can again aid in the construction of an arson kit. Most of the tools mentioned can be found in the property room of a municipal police department. By cooperation between police and fire, each department can have an arson kit standing by for each investigator.

Pictures at arson scene

Photography is also necessary to make many points clear to the court. Either the fire or police department can handle this assignment. Sometimes police may serve as a backup photographer for the arson investigator. If a crime is suspected, the jurisdiction for crime scene photography may already be set forth, but a conscious effort must be made by the fire department to determine the crime scene.

Is the laboratory equipped to handle arson cases? Is a gas chromatograph fitted with the proper columns for accelerant determination? Or is the police department even concerned with assisting in arson investigations? It must be determined early in the planning stages that a crime such as arson needs trained and qualified laboratory personnel to do the final analysis. Lack of a lab analysis may very well mean no case unless there was an eyewitness.

Take a close look at your fire department. Who handles those questionable fires? Are your administrators willing to supply the money and training to create qualified investigators? Can the police and fire departments work more closely to solve arson cases? They must if the number of arsons is to decrease. For many, the job should just begin when the fire is extinguished.

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