First responders: know your fire investigation role

Posted: May 1, 2020 by Chad Campanell, Special Agent, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)

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photo of a burned out room

This year's Arson Awareness Week (May 3-9) highlights the crucial role that first responders can play in a successful fire investigation.

As a firefighter, you are not just a first responder to the fire, but a first responder to the fire investigation as well. In that role, you are the eyes and ears of those professionals who investigate the fire to determine its origin and cause.

As with any structure, the foundation is the most important part. You lay the foundation for the scene examination. If you are aware of the scene, you can play a vital role in preserving clues for the fire investigators.

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Observe your surroundings while on scene

First and foremost, preserve life and property. While suppression operations are ongoing, though, you may observe other things that can be useful to investigators.

  • Did you see a car speeding away from the scene of the fire?
  • What did the occupants say about the cause of the fire? Or where it was?
  • Was there any evidence that occupants attempted to fight the fire?
  • Did you observe any weather events that could explain the fire or affected fire suppression efforts?
  • Was there any evidence of ongoing improvements such as electrical or hot work being performed on the structure? Did you notice any unusual odors or did anything look out of place?

These are just a few of the dozens of things firefighters can potentially see before the fire investigators get there. This is not to distract away from your main mission: there can’t be a fire investigation until after the fire is out. But keep these observations in mind so that you can pass them along to the fire investigators after your work is done.

Firefighter observation helps catch arsonist

I had a case involving a serial arsonist who operated in the same neighborhood for several months. He lit a house on fire that ended up injuring several firefighters.

While interviewing the firefighters, one of them drew our attention to a bystander. He said that he saw the bystander before at other fires. We investigated further and discovered the bystander was, in fact, the arsonist. If that firefighter wasn't aware of his surroundings during previous fires, we would not have identified the arsonist as quickly as we did.

Limit overhaul after the fire is extinguished

As an ATF agent, I have come across many cases where limiting — or not limiting — overhaul has played a factor in the fire investigation. Here's another example of how first responder awareness at a fire scene helped to solve an arson case, this time an arson murder case.

Two children were killed at a home fire in 2017. The fire was confined to the room of origin and resulted in surprisingly little damage, considering modern fuel loads. There was a line of demarcation on the floor indicating the door to the bedroom was only open a few inches. This became a critical piece of evidence in explaining the fire behavior of the bedroom.

The firefighters in this case were very aware of the coming investigation. They limited overhaul and access to the room and preserved the scene, including the mark on the floor. The fire investigation revealed that the children's mother set the fire. She was subsequently convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to two life terms in prison without parole.

It's possible the defendant would have literally gotten away with murder if the firefighters were not disciplined enough to exit the room when they were finished extinguishing the fire in order to preserve the scene. They realized their job was done and didn't disturb evidence unnecessarily.

The days of clearing the room of fire origin to the studs is over.

Understand your role and how you can help

The U.S. Fire Administration can help you to understand your first responder role in fire investigations. Take advantage of USFA's Arson Awareness Week resources and training to learn about fire scene awareness, evidence identification, preservation and the basics of a fire investigation.

The days of clearing the room of fire origin to the studs is over. It is a relic of a more primitive time in the history of America’s fire service. Insurance companies that subrogate cases (pay damages to customers and then make claims against others), as a result of the fires we’re responding to, have millions of dollars on the line. The fire department, and the firefighters in it, may become the target of a lawsuit if excessive overhaul occurs.

In today's litigious society even the fire department can be held accountable in this new reality.

Visit the 2020 Arson Awareness Week page for tips on how to preserve clues for fire investigators at the scene of a fire. Also, learn about National Fire Academy training that will teach you the importance of fire scene awareness, evidence identification, preservation and the basics of a fire investigation.

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