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For First Responders Only

by:
Cathleen Corbitt



It is rare for a fire investigator to be present in the first moments after a fire is discovered. More often, the initial response involves firefighters, police officers, and EMS. These professionals have the unique opportunity to see the scene shortly after the fire event began. What actions they take and situations they observe can be of critical importance to the investigation. Below is a short checklist of key actions for the three main types of first responders who answer a fire call. Every scene is different, and your professional judgment determines how the scene should be handled. These guidelines are intended only as a self-check and should be modified by the professional as required.

Fire Service

The fire service is responsible for protecting the public and property from fire. In fulfilling this responsibility, the fire department can take certain actions that assist the investigator who may be called to the fire. Here is a checklist for what the fire department can do before the fire investigator arrives.

Before the Fire

Has a working relationship with the local fire investigator(s) been established and are all stakeholders clear on their role in the fire investigation plan?
Preparation before the fire call is critical to ensuring the response and investigation run smoothly and systematically. Reach out to the fire investigator, police department, emergency medical services, and others in your local area and form a working group to develop a fire response plan. When it comes time to implement the plan, no time will be lost in coordinating activities. This group can also coordinate community fire prevention events.


Have fire prevention efforts been initiated and continued in our community?
In addition to the traditional fire prevention days at community events, speaking at schools to children the principles of escaping a fire, and advocating for smoke alarms and sprinklers, the fire service can also be of assistance in fire incident abatement at the law enforcement level. Participate with police in identifying buildings that are at risk for a fire. Use fire incident reports to chart the fire activity in your community using a pin map or other device. Draw trends from this information and identify "hot spots" where law enforcement can concentrate their efforts.

Has every firefighter been trained in how to preserve the scene and physical evidence and are they practicing these principles?
Every fire scene should be treated as a crime scene until the fire investigator has determined otherwise. There are four concrete steps that firefighters can take to assist in the investigative process: observation, recognition, preservation, and notification. Observation means noting conditions and circumstances at the fire scene. Fire behavior, conditions in the room of origin, victims found, witness behaviors, and rescuer actions noted by the firefighter can inform the investigation. Recognition means realizing what items and areas may be of evidentiary value. Preservation means practicing suppression and overhaul techniques that minimize damage to the scene. These include:

  • controlling hoses and water and aiming water at the ceiling over a fire area, rather than at the area, to avoid scattering potential evidence
  • avoiding excessive overhaul that may damage evidence or obscure fire patterns
  • limiting salvage so evidence is not moved or lost
  • refraining from moving switches or plugs on utilities and appliances so that accidental causes may be readily investigated
  • limiting the use of gasoline- and diesel-powered tools, to minimize evidence contamination issues

Notification means informing the incident commander of anything observed in the course of carrying out the other three principles.

If possible, have an investigator brief the fire department on the potential signs of incendiary fire, including excessive charring, accelerant burn patterns on floors and furniture, liquid accelerant pools, excessive combustibles load, attempts to block firefighter access, and intentional hazardous conditions.

At the Scene

Has a command post been established at the scene that is proximate to the location, but clear of evidence areas and potential hazards?
The command post is a crucial central location for coordinating on-scene activities. It should be established as soon as possible and all information should flow through it and through the Incident Commander. The command post must be located outside the fire and explosion danger radius. Be especially careful in the case of explosions; if the incident is a bombing, there may be a secondary device in a location where a command post would likely be set up. The area should be swept for secondary devices by search team and by canine, if available, before a command post is set up.

Have victims been rescued and triaged as required and have rescuers noted details about the victims?
The location, position, and condition of victims can hold clues to the fire's origin and cause. When encountering and removing victims, note the location where they were found, what else was in the area, the position the victims were found in, the victims' physical and mental condition, the injuries that were apparent, and anything the victims said. Report this information to the Incident Commander and the fire investigator.

Has the location been inspected for safety?
Before investigative personnel enter the structure, the fire should be extinguished and the location should be declared safe, both structurally and for hazardous materials. This can be done in conjunction with the fire investigator, HAZMAT team, structural engineer, or other expert as required.

Has the fire investigator been called?
Even in the case of accidental fire, the fire investigator has a role in determining what caused the accidental fire and reporting any product defect or improper maintenance to the proper authorities. In many incendiary fires, the perpetrator will attempt to make the fire appear accidental. In these cases, it may appear that the fire investigator is not needed. Always err on the side of caution. Do not make a snap judgment based on what appear to be obvious facts at the scene. Call the fire investigator and allow him or her to do their job.

Have the first-in firefighters and others with firsthand observations been interviewed by the fire investigator?
Ensure that any fire service personnel with firsthand observations and recognitions speak with the fire investigator to relay what they noted.

Police Department

At the fire scene, an officer from the police department may be the first professional to arrive. The officer(s) may have to calm witnesses, control the crowd, and secure the scene. Here is a checklist of what the police department can do to assist before the fire investigator arrives.

Before the Fire

Has a working relationship with the local fire investigator(s) been established and are all stakeholders clear on their role in the fire investigation plan?
Preparation before the fire call is critical to ensuring the response and investigation run smoothly and systematically. Reach out to the fire investigator, fire department, emergency medical services, and others in your local area and form a working group to develop a fire response plan. When it comes time to implement the plan, no time will be lost in coordinating activities. This group can also coordinate community fire prevention events.

Have available law enforcement tools and fire department data been used to document the size and scope of the fire/arson problem in the community and has a prevention plan been implemented?
Using police reports and fire incident reports, chart the scope of the fire problem in your community. Create a pin map to assist you in identifying hot zones. Then, create a plan of action to address these areas. Measures to address a fire problem include:

  • preventative patrols
  • hardening potential arson targets
  • improving street lighting
  • boarding up or demolishing abandoned buildings
  • targeting code inspections
  • meeting with owners of potential targets and formulating a prevention plan

Have all police officers been trained in the observation of events and behaviors at the fire scene and in the identification of witnesses?
As the first on the scene, police officers can record valuable observations about what is happening, what people are doing, and what is being said. They can also identify witnesses. These items can be of importance to the investigation. Things to look for include:

  • people running from the building
  • people attempting to enter the scene
  • people claiming to be victims who appear to be dressed inappropriately or acting strangely
  • crowd members who attempt to contact you
  • crowd members who attempt to avoid you

Carefully observe all scene conditions and what people are doing and report the details to the fire investigator.

At the Scene

Have activities been coordinated with the fire department at the command post?
As described above for the fire department, the single command post at the scene should be in an area that is safe and proximate. Coordinate activities through the Incident Commander. The police department can also be of assistance in a secondary device search before the command post is set up, in crowd control, and in keeping the location secure.

Has assistance been rendered to victims and have officers noted witnesses' behavior and statements?
Law enforcement often has the opportunity to observe and interact with victims and witnesses very close to the time of the event. Render assistance to anyone in distress and pay careful attention to how they act and what they say. Keep witnesses at a safe distance from the fire scene and do not allow them to enter the premises. Offer to contact a family member or friend to assist a victim, especially one in emotional distress. Attempt to gain as much information as possible; their impressions will be fresher the sooner they are given. Call for an ambulance as appropriate.

Has a perimeter been established and the scene secured?
Err on the side of caution and set a larger, rather than a smaller, perimeter. Tape off or otherwise secure the location and post officers to monitor the perimeter so unauthorized personnel cannot access the scene. Keep the crowd and the media at a safe distance. Neighbors, tenants, owners, and others connected to the property should not be allowed back in unless authorized by command and accompanied by a law enforcement official. Restrict access to only emergency personnel until instructed to do otherwise.

Have exterior evidence areas been marked and preserved?
Any exterior areas that may contain evidence should be marked off and preserved. These include burn areas, hurled missiles, garbage cans where accelerant containers may have been deposited, debris fields, and points of ingress and egress where fingerprints and trace evidence may remain. Later, point these out to the fire investigator.

Have all witnesses' names, contact information, and relationship to the fire been recorded?
Take contact information from any victims and witnesses at the scene. Continue to monitor the crowd and approach new people to ascertain their relationship to the fire and add them to the potential witness list. Secure key witnesses until a statement can be taken. Record where victims are taken for treatment. Forward all this information to the fire investigator.

Have the first responding officers and any other officers with information been interviewed by the fire investigator?
Report all information you have gathered and all things you have observed to the fire investigator.

Has the department offered assistance in the ongoing investigation?
Law enforcement can be of assistance in the ongoing investigation. Speak with the fire investigator and offer assistance in:

  • taking statements
  • canvassing the neighborhood
  • finding owners, occupants, or others sought for interview
  • searching for particular pieces of evidence
  • contacting delivery services
  • canvassing local businesses for suspicious purchases or activity

This assistance can allow the fire investigator to concentrate on the origin and cause determination. Be sure these requests are properly integrated into the incident command system and the overall fire investigation plan.

Emergency Medical Service

EMS can also gather information for the fire investigator. Here is a checklist of actions.

Before the Fire

Has a working relationship with the local fire investigator(s) been established and are all stakeholders clear on their role in the fire investigation plan?
Preparation before the fire call is critical to ensuring the response and investigation run smoothly and systematically. Reach out to the fire investigator, fire department, police department, and others in your local area and form a working group to develop a fire response plan. When it comes time to implement the plan, no time will be lost in coordinating activities. This group can also coordinate community fire prevention events.

Have all EMS members been trained in the observation of events and behaviors at the fire scene?
Because EMS works directly with victims, they may be able to observe injuries, behaviors, and verbal statements that other professionals do not. All these circumstances should be noted and later reported to the fire investigator.

At the Scene

Have victims been treated and details about their behavior and injuries noted?
EMS has the opportunity to observe and interact with victims and witnesses very close to the time of the event. Although your first priority is treatment, note how victims act and what they say. Report this information to the fire investigator. It may assist in reconstructing the timeline of events.


The author acknowledges Fire Captain Dennis Smith, Atlantic City NJ Fire Department, for his source material on the four steps for evidence recognition and preservation by the fire service from interFIRE VR.

 
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