Current Events and Issues

First responders: know your fire investigation role

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

The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) is funding research to find ways to significantly reduce the cost of retrofitting existing homes with lifesaving residential fire sprinkler systems. We hope to reduce both the amount of water needed and the complexity of installing sprinklers, while providing time for occupants to escape a fire in their home.

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.

ZOOM course offerings

Fire Investigation: First Responder (M0770)

June 22-23, July 20-21, Aug. 3-4

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.
  • Filter:
graphic examples
NEW
New graphics highlight wildland firefighter safety messaging

Graphics for wildland firefighters that depict the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders and 18 Watch Out Situations are available for download.

woman wearing a mask during a wildfire
Minimizing the effects of wildfire smoke during COVID-19

Inform your community about these actionable steps they can take to minimize the respiratory effects of wildfire smoke.

photo of an activated residential fire sprinkler head
Retrofitting homes with lower cost sprinkler technologies

USFA is working with the UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute on research to reduce home fire sprinkler retrofit complexities.

photo of person installing gutter guards
Doing the little things makes a difference in wildfire safety

Learn about simple and low-cost actions that homeowners can take to protect their homes from wildfire.

photo of a burned out room
First responders: know your fire investigation role

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

photo of a marina
Fire onboard: safety tips for boaters in your community

Resources you can use to make people in boating communities aware of onboard fire dangers and how to prevent boat and marina fires.

burned out street after a wildfire with street signs propped up
WUI fire evacuations: how national address point data helps

A national address point database can be of value to officials during wildfire evacuations by allowing for more precise mapping and improved information sharing.

paramedics placing a patient into an ambulance
Mitigating the risk and impact of assaults on EMS responders

The SAVER checklist helps departments assess and implement training, policies and practices to mitigate assaults on EMS responders.

courtroom
Helping assaulted first responders during legal prosecutions

Recommendations to overcome common obstacles to the legal prosecution of people who assault first responders.

doctor looking at test results
How organizational factors affect firefighter cancer screening

Having two or more health and safety officers influences the availability of firefighter cancer screening.

family making a fire escape plan
Teach your community about the dangers of fire

A recent survey shows that many in your community probably don't understand the life-threatening risks from heat and toxic smoke produced in a modern home fire.

paramedics treating an older patient at home
Community paramedics helpful in treating home-bound patients

A community paramedicine program, integrated with an advanced illness management program, can be effective in treating frail, older adults in their homes.

wildfire threatens home
Mitigating wildfire vulnerability: one community's success story

Learn how the Montecito Fire Protection District used a socio-ecological mitigation approach to successfully fight the Thomas Fire.

President Trump at the ceremony
Medal of Valor ceremony recognizes two Kansas firefighters

U.S. Fire Administrator Keith Bryant attended the Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor ceremony at the White House on May 22, 2019.

a man doing a push-up
Assessing cardiovascular disease risk with push-ups

Can a simple exercise like a push-up be an inexpensive way for fire departments to assess cardiovascular disease risk in firefighters?

graphene
Using nanotechnology to minimize fire damage

Nanotechnology, manufactured at scale and low cost while posing minimal health risks, may potentially point to a future with fewer fires that are less lethal and less damaging.

electric car and solar panels
A better DC hot stick technology is on the way

New tool will help prevent first responder electrical injury.

hoarded items in a home
Takeaways from a hoarding intervention strategy

A recent study of the City of Vancouver’s Hoarding Action Response Team provides key takeaways for fire departments.

firefighter gear
Firefighter decon challenges? Try a communication intervention.

Learn about a communication intervention strategy designed by researchers to increase post-fire decontamination behaviors in firefighters.

firefighters removing gear
Firefighter decon challenges: knowledge versus practice

Understanding firefighter beliefs related to decontaminating bunker gear is an essential first step to reduce exposure risks.

fire engine and ambulance
Dual dispatch to cardiac arrest: can it save lives?

Dual dispatch of EMT-trained firefighters shortens response time and increases survival chance for out-of-hospital cardiac arrest patients.

child sleeping with mother in background
Waking children with maternal voice smoke alarms

A new study from Nationwide Children's Hospital shows that maternal voice smoke alarms are more effective in waking children than conventional tone alarms.

home with wildfire mitigation measures in place
How one homeowner saved his house from the Carr Fire

Learn about wildfire mitigation measures one California homeowner took during construction and maintained over the years to make his home fire-resilient.

wheelchair patients
EMS Mobile Integrated Health during disaster response

How one community's MIH providers assisted with patient care during severe flooding.

paramedics treating a patient
Training helps EMS workers identify human trafficking signs

Learn about the key components of a human trafficking training and awareness program for EMS workers.

firefighter wearing SCBA at a house fire
Reducing airborne contaminant exposure with fireground tactics

New study provides valuable insights into fireground exposure risks and ways to mitigate them.

Facebook logo and a cordless phone
Smoke alarm messaging: Facebook ads versus phone calls

Study shows automated calls were more successful than Facebook ads in getting residents to request a free smoke alarm install.

person using the Airbnb app on a phone
Fire and life safety concerns in peer-to-peer lodging

Fire departments and communities around the U.S. are starting to recognize and address the unique fire safety concerns that peer-to-peer lodgings, like Airbnb, present.

circuit training
Circuit training impact on volunteer firefighters’ cardiovascular health

About 20 percent of volunteer firefighters meet the VO2 max fitness level recommended by NFPA 1582. So how might volunteer firefighters best improve their cardiovascular fitness? A study published this year explored how circuit training may help.

sprained knee
Mitigating fireground injury risks: Suggested interventions

Firefighting poses many hazards that come in a wide variety of work settings. A recent study focused on the scope and nature of fireground injuries to determine what steps fire departments can take to better mitigate hazards posed by certain risks.

man holding a smoke alarm in his hands
Home fire safety canvassing: Achieving better results

Planning a home canvassing event? These research-based tips can help you to win maximum neighborhood participation.

firefighters removing SCBA
Firefighter burnout and workplace safety

Are firefighters who show symptoms of burnout less likely to follow safety procedures? A team of researchers recently set out to learn if burnout impacted a firefighter’s ability to follow required safe work practices.

husband and wife using a laptop
New Firefighter Cancer Registry will help to monitor cancer incidents

The voluntary registry will include the number and type of fires each firefighter attended.

nurse, mom and her baby
Study reveals successful smoke alarm installation partnership

Find out what happened when Maricopa County, Arizona firefighters partnered with nurses from a home visiting program to get smoke alarms into homes of the “hard-to-reach.”

main street usa
Fire sprinkler tax incentives for small businesses

Fire service officials: Here’s some news that you can share with local small business owners to encourage them to install fire sprinklers.

paramedics entering a hospital with a patient
EMS prehospital documentation accuracy: Can body-worn cameras help?

This article discusses the results of a pilot study where EMS providers used body-worn cameras to see if they could help to improve the accuracy of their prehospital documentation.

binder of safety procedures
Factors that contribute to preventable firefighter deaths

A recent study highlights the importance of SOPs in preventing firefighter fatalities.

home boarded up with clear board
Clear boarding creates a ”no ply“ zone

There’s a new alternative to plywood for boarding up vacant and abandoned buildings that can help prevent arson: clear board.

firefighters walking away in PPE after a fire
Clean gear is the new badge of honor

This article looks at firefighter perceptions of dirty gear and how Palm Beach County Fire Rescue promoted organizational resilience to combat the risk of firefighter cancer from dirty gear.

firefighters in smoke
Clean your PPE and skin post-fire to reduce chemical exposure risk

Firefighting activities can lead to chemical contamination. This article presents research findings on cleaning personal protective equipment and skin to reduce chemical exposures.

drone delivering an AED
Transforming cardiac emergency care with drone delivery of AEDs

Preliminary studies suggest that medical drones may make a life-saving difference in providing emergency care to cardiac arrest patients, especially those in a rural setting.

fire station
Turnout times: How important is time of day?

Research findings from a recent study into how station design of dormitory location and the time of day of the emergency affect turnout times.

firefighters at the scene of a car accident
The effect of repeated exposure trauma on firefighters

This article details findings from a research project that studied the impact of repeated exposure trauma on firefighters.

chlorine test release
New report offers insights for emergency responders on chlorine releases

Multiagency chlorine release experiments were conducted in part to help emergency responders meet the planning, tactical and operational challenges of a catastrophic Toxic Inhalation Hazard release.