Depending on the specific circumstances, you, as police officers, are often the first emergency responders to a fire scene. That means you have to make a bunch of decisions in a hurry.
Upon arriving at the scene of a fire, you have to decide whether to locate the fire and attempt to extinguish it in the smaller growth stage. You also have to determine whether you need to start evacuating and notifying nearby persons of the immediate danger.
There's no one solution for all fires. But your personal safety must be considered above all else. Consider that if you attempt to extinguish the fire, you may place yourself in a situation where you need to be rescued and will become part of the problem. Evacuating occupants and notifying nearby persons of the immediate danger and/or performing traffic/crowd control will likely be the most helpful thing that you can do. Regardless, before the start of your next shift, review any local policies and procedures concerning these emergency situations.
This article is not a "how to" covering the conduct of investigations into the origin and cause of a fire. Rather, it is a basic guide for patrol officers that is designed to help you determine what actions to take at a fire scene.
Some jurisdictions have response personnel that will investigate and document the incident. In other jurisdictions, fire personnel will investigate the fire and convey their findings to the patrol officer on scene for the report. And in other jurisdictions, you may find yourself investigating and documenting the fire incident without any outside assistance.
Although arson laws and reporting requirements vary from state to state, here are some basic things to consider when investigating fire incidents, especially as a patrol officer.
Be a Cop First
Officers often get so wrapped up with the fire part of the investigation that basic, everyday investigative techniques somehow get overlooked. These include doing witness checks in the area and conducting a search in the surrounding area to determine if the suspect left behind or discarded any related "instrumentalities of the crime" such as gas cans, flare caps, burned clothing, rubber gloves, and the like.
It is imperative that when you are interviewing people at the incident such as the owner, witnesses, bystanders watching or photographing the fire, and transients that you don't forget to interview the person who called 9-1-1 to report the fire.
Chances are, he or she saw the fire in its beginning stages and may have seen other things relevant to the investigation.
Talking to Firefighters
It is also important to document the names and ID numbers of the "first in" fire suppression crews along with their observations and what they did to fight the fire.
The fire crew will also need to itemize what was altered at the scene when doing their final sweep to ensure the fire is out. This is known as "overhaul" to suppression crews, and it can inadvertently conceal or destroy evidence. Noting damage they caused during the suppression or overhaul efforts may be critical in determining if there was forced entry to the building before crews were on scene.