Arson Awareness Week

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recent arson fire

Baltimore (MD) City Fire Department and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) personnel prepare to examine the scene at a recent arson fire.

One way of ensuring that investigators obtain information and evidence of the highest quality and utility is to follow sound protocols in their investigations. Recent cases in the criminal justice system demonstrate the need for heightened awareness of investigators to adhere to strict investigative procedures and practices at all crime scenes to avoid evidentiary and other legal challenges. Fire investigation, like other criminal investigations, benefits from organized teamwork, consistent practices, and a logical investigative process tailored to individual crime scenes. The implementation of a standard investigative protocol is also required to effectively investigate, solve, and consistently secure convictions in arson cases.

One such protocol that continues to be effectively used by fire/arson investigation units throughout the country is the Witness-Driven Fire Investigation Protocol.

This protocol is a systematic, "street-proven" tactical investigative approach for all incidents based on the scientific method that is intended to maximize the amount of reliable physical, witness, and documentary evidence and data at a fire scene while helping to avoid evidence contamination or destruction. It emphasizes immediately interviewing witnesses and collecting and documenting evidence in stages:

Preliminary Scene Examination

The objective of the preliminary scene examination is to quickly identify the general area of fire origin, interview persons who were present in or near the area when the fire began, identify other persons present on the scene as the first police or fire department units arrived and to locate and protect physical evidence. Once the initial size-up is completed, investigators should secure the scene and focus the investigative team on identification of key witnesses and documentation of their interviews.

Interview Witnesses

Investigators should immediately begin to locate occupants, neighbors, and persons in the area at the time of the incident, passer-by witnesses and the person(s) that discovered and/or reported the incident. Whenever possible, witnesses should be interviewed in the following order: a victim or complainant; a witness who observed the initial fire occur; a witness who did not observe the fire ignition but has information regarding what occurred prior to or after the incident; and a hostile witness or suspect. These witnesses can provide pertinent information about a fire even if they were not eyewitnesses to the actual event.

Comprehensive Scene Examination

One of the major objectives of a comprehensive scene examination is the recognition, identification and analysis of fire patterns to reconstruct the scene. The analysis of fire patterns is performed in an attempt to trace fire spread, document damage, identify the area and point of origin, identify the fuel/components involved and determine the cause of the incident. Investigators must corroborate known facts, circumstances and findings with information obtained from interviews.

Follow-up Investigation

The primary purpose of the follow-up investigation is to identify and successfully prosecute the perpetrator(s) of the crime. In the final stage of a fire investigation, leads generated in the investigation are aggressively pursued and evaluated and all evidence is evaluated and analyzed to identify and apprehend the perpetrator(s).

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