Arson Awareness Week

Failure Points and Case Solvability Factors Next: Success Stories »

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There are several "failure points" in arson investigations that can have a potentially devastating impact on the ability of investigators to successfully investigate and solve cases and for prosecutors to successfully prosecute them.

Failure Points

Delay in the initiation of an investigation.

The general rule in any criminal investigation has always been, the quicker the investigator can respond to the scene, the better the chances of securing the scene, identifying potential witnesses, preserving evidence and solving the case. After days pass, the flow of information and the ability to generate leads to successfully solve serial arson cases diminishes significantly.

Failure to identify key witnesses and record statements.

It is crucial that as soon as investigators arrive on the scene, they attempt to "lock-in" as many witness statements as possible from key players in the investigation. The documentation of these statements can prove invaluable as times passes and the investigation progresses to the point where a potential suspect(s) is identified.

Leads are not sufficiently corroborated.

Investigators that know how to "investigate" need to follow-up and corroborate all leads. If this is not done, the quality of the investigation will suffer, not to mention the potential negative impact on the timely identification, apprehension and prosecution of an offender.

Failure to conduct a comprehensive origin and cause examination.

If the quality of the fire scene examination is poor, the entire investigation is potentially compromised and doomed for failure, especially when it comes time to testify with regard to the cause of the fire. Investigators must take the time to accurately determine the origin and cause of the incident. A successful serial arson investigation begins with conducting a scientifically sound origin and cause determination.

Poor collection and documentation of evidence.

Another common failure in arson investigations is deficiencies in the collection and documentation of physical evidence. Investigators must exercise extreme caution and take the time to properly collect and document all potential evidence to avoid contamination, chain of custody and inadmissibility issues if and when the case proceeds to trial.

Lack of teamwork.

A successful arson investigation requires teamwork among all agencies that have a stake in the outcome of the investigation. With more and more scrutiny being placed on the scientific and technical bases for origin and cause determinations by defense attorneys and the courts, investigators need to rely on the assistance of outside technical specialists such as fire protection engineers, fire scientists, electrical engineers and other experts to support their cases and withstand the rigors of cross-examination.

Cases are not effectively managed and prioritized properly.

One of the most important responsibilities of the unit manager is to manage, prioritize and assign cases for follow-up investigation that have a high probability of being solved. This should be based on a structured case management system using case solvability factors.

Case Solvability Factors

Case solvability factors are those identifiable facts or circumstances that make a case potentially solvable that are identified and documented during the investigative process. Case solvability factors provide a standard approach for effectively screening, prioritizing and managing investigative caseloads and resources.

The use of case solvability factors is extremely important for successfully investigating serial arson cases. The success of the follow-up investigation depends on how thorough the preliminary scene investigation is conducted and on the quality of the information collected by investigators during the initial stages of the investigation.

The following is a list of the case solvability factors that should be documented by investigators at every fire scene as part of the preliminary investigation: