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Don’t Get Burned

Every good patrol officer needs to know how to respond to and facilitate the investigation of a fire.

November 01, 2008  |  by Matt Smith and Justin Gipson

Once the area of the fire is no longer deemed a "crime scene," the owner and/or person responsible may enter the scene and allow others inside for an independent evaluation or investigation. The insured party cannot refuse access to an insurance investigator or agent from his or her insurance company. Refusal or non-cooperation could give the insurance company the right to deny a claim.

If an independent insurance investigator or technician arrives, you may advise him or her of the events that took place and point out potentially noteworthy information (unless it could damage the police or criminal investigation). Doing so may actually save your agency in a subrogation lawsuit, if one is later filed by the insurance company. This type of lawsuit is typically filed over a claim that your investigation spoiled evidence that the insurer needed to determine the credibility of the claim.

It's true—an agency can actually be sued or caught in the middle of a lawsuit for doing a fire investigation, especially if something questionable happens that is beyond the scope of expertise for personnel at the scene.

For example, an insurance company may blame a clothes dryer manufacturer if a malfunction could have started the fire. If a law enforcement officer attempts to disassemble the dryer to find fault, the manufacturer will then blame your agency, citing that it cannot prove what really happened because evidence was tampered with. When in doubt, thoroughly photograph the item and any outlet it is connected to.

Responding to fire scenes is a bit different than a typical crime scene. However, if you maintain the basic principles of investigation and also follow your training and instincts, you'll be fine.

Every fire you respond to will be a great learning experience. It may also sharpen your everyday crime scene investigation skills and teach you to "think outside the box."

Det. Matt Smith investigates arson and financial crimes with the Chula Vista (Calif.) Police Department. He has served as both an academy and a field training officer. Credentialed by NAFI as a Certified Fire and Explosion Investigator (CFEI), he also holds a master's of science degree in homeland security and bachelor of science degree in criminal justice.

Fire Marshal Justin Gipson directs the fire prevention and investigative division for the Chula Vista (Calif.) Fire Department. He is credentialed by both NAFI and the California State Fire Marshal's Office as a Certified Fire and Explosion Investigator (CFEI). Gipson holds a bachelor's of science degree with a minor in fire science technology and is pursuing a second bachelor's degree in fire safety and engineering.

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