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.
This brings us to another basic investigative principle that often gets overlooked at fire scenes: attempting to identify or lift latent prints in what is believed to be the "point of entry" (POE) if there were signs of forced entry in a residence or building that caught fire. Dusting for latent prints should always be attempted unless the POE was heavily damaged by the fire.
In a desolate area or an open field, tire tracks may have also been left behind that can possibly identify the type of vehicle that had been present at the scene.
Sometimes residences or businesses in the immediate area have video cameras. These can capture a glimpse of a vehicle or suspect involved or even what initially caused the fire. If enough evidence is captured on video, there may no longer be a need for an in-depth police investigation.
Consent to Search
At the scene of the fire, a firefighter or ranking fire official may request to take you on a "walk-through" of the scene to explain his or her observations that led to the conclusion that the fire was arson.
Before you go on that walk-through, remember that law enforcement officers must have the legal authority to enter and investigate the scene after the fire is out. Many courts have allowed an "exigency exception" and determined that a warrant is not necessary. But when in doubt, consult your agency's legal liaison or local prosecutor's office before going into the building without a warrant or consent after the fire is out.
Obtaining "consent to search" in either a written or audiotaped format is a good idea even if the property owner legitimately appears to be a "victim." Always remember that evidence gathered may be used to convict the property owner or resident of insurance fraud or other crimes. The "victim" may become a "suspect" later.
Don't Be a Casualty
And when entering, remember to consider everyone's safety. Safety is and always will be the first priority.
Make sure that a qualified professional has turned off all utilities. If the building you're investigating is heavily damaged from the fire, consider having a building inspector evaluate the stability of the structure before entering it.
Never go in alone. If circumstances provide no choice, make sure that someone knows where you are and have them check on you regularly in the event that something does happen. Fire scenes can be very dangerous, even long after the fire has been put out.
Roofs can cave in, chimneys can collapse, and walls and/or ceilings that have been knocked down can contain nails or other sharp objects that can penetrate boots or shoes. Wear safety boots with steel toes and protective shank soles to prevent puncture wounds. Always wear proper safety equipment, including a helmet or OSHA-approved hard hat to protect against falling debris.
Inhalation of smoke or toxic fumes, electrical shock, or hazmat-related risks (depending on the contents of the building) are also dangerous.
Before entering, make sure that the fire scene has been well ventilated to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning or other inhalation hazards. Toxic fumes can be odorless, tasteless, and colorless—and they can be deadly.
Fire crews often have industrial size fans or other ventilation equipment they can set up and operate before you go in. It is also a good idea to keep an OSHA-approved particle filter dust mask or High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter with you for these situations. Separate stackable cartridges can be added to an air-purifying respirator to protect against toxic gases.
Also, you will want to wear OSHA-approved eye and/or splash protection. Contaminated water from the fire suppression efforts, mixed with potentially toxic contents of that building, can drip or run off from above and get into your eyes. If these basic but essential safety items are not available, ask to borrow them from the fire suppression crew at the scene (who are no longer wearing them).
When entering the fire scene, determine if it is safe and/or possible to walk from the least to the most burned areas and document them accordingly. Take note of the fire's progression by describing burned areas as well as the surrounding or adjacent areas that may only have indirect heat or smoke damage. Each area and its unique burn patterns need to be photographed or videoed as evidence and for future evaluation by others who specialize in fire/burn pattern analysis.
Be sure to include electrical outlets in the area(s) around the most fire damage (possibly the origin of the fire), and the breaker box and switches. Make note of any "tripped" switches, wiring and/or connections (electrical, phone, cable, etc.) leading to the building, as well as gas meters and any other external devices connected to the building (A/C or HVAC unit). Photograph and document any electrical items (all angles) and the outlets they are plugged into within the burned area or areas, if the origin cannot be initially
Prepare to identify, collect, and preserve evidence from the fire scene as you would for any other incident or crime. However, there are some factors to consider when collecting evidence from a fire, since certain items may need to be evaluated by laboratory personnel. Make sure to send those items to the laboratory immediately following the incident.
Items suspected of having an ignitable liquid accelerant on or in it will need to be preserved in a container that traps chemicals and vapors, including wet or dry samples. Evidence "paint cans" will work well. If the item or items will not fit into cans, seal them in a large static free "k-pack" bag, but make sure to read about the specific product's instructions and limitations.
There are also additional considerations on how evidence "paint cans" can be stored prior to their use. If cans are in the trunk of a vehicle, make sure they are clean and unused, and tightly sealed in k-pack bags.
In court, the defense will probably not be able to challenge the lab results. However, they may challenge or try to create doubt about the state of the cans before evidence was collected. If the cans are stored in the trunk of a car, the defense may attempt to persuade the jury that the cans were exposed to the vehicle's
Avoid possible "cross contamination" on items that are being held or preserved for lab analysis. Change your latex gloves every time you handle a new evidence sample. Also, be sure to consider what your boots could be tracking around. If you are wearing them every day during patrol (as most officers do), there is a possibility the defense may suggest that your boots could have been exposed to ignitable liquids prior to the fire while fueling your vehicle. Thoroughly wash your boots before entering a fire scene. Dawn dishwashing liquid is commonly used by fire investigators—it eliminates grease and petroleum-based residue.
Fire scenes can draw other people who have a potential vested interest in the scene.
Often, insurance adjustors or private investigators may arrive at the scene to do their own investigation and analysis on behalf of their organization or employer.
When in doubt, do not allow them access if the scene is being investigated (as with any criminal investigation). However, insurance company fire investigators often bring a vast amount of experience, knowledge, and specific training. They will often agree to pay for lab analysis at an agreed-upon neutral third party laboratory. For smaller police agencies with minimal budgets, this can be a great thing. Just keep in mind that they work for someone who stands to potentially lose a lot of money. Power and/or gas companies may also send out a technician or investigator to ensure that the fire was not caused by their equipment or error.
Document and convey all potential hazards discovered on scene to the owner and/or person responsible. One or two simple sentences citing your findings could protect you and your agency from liability if the owner or his or her agent gets hurt after the scene is turned back over.
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.