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Outfitting Your Smartphone for Fire Investigations

By: Cathleen E. Corbitt-Dipierro

Smartphones are quickly taking over the US cellular phone hardware market — iPhone, Droid, Blackberry, Palm, just to name a few brands. With their advanced computing capability, smartphones are enabling users to perform more and more tasks on their phone than just the simple calling and texting. This computing power is harnessed by “apps,” which are application software programs used on smartphones.

For the fire investigator, the smartphone can become a handy tool in your daily work, but only if you know how to outfit it. This article highlights some of the core apps that fire investigators can use every day to assist in managing their investigative and administrative work. One caution before we begin: the investigator should be aware that any investigative information kept on your smartphone is not secure and also may be discoverable in a future legal proceeding. For that reason, we’ve confined the discussion of apps in this article to those where case-based investigative information is not stored or shared. At all times, exercise the utmost caution with investigative information.

Weather
There are a variety of weather apps available, from simple forecasts, to detailed Doppler radar, to live lightning strike data. Weather apps can help you in many ways:

  • Figuring weather information into your investigative plan. For example, sunset times will tell you if you might need to call for supplementary lighting and watching the radar of incoming inclement weather will provide critical data so you can deploy investigative assets accordingly.


  • Employing weather data in your investigative fact-finding process, such as corroborating a witness’ statement that it was dark at a certain time or ascertaining whether a lighting strike might have been the cause of a fire.


  • Understand what special scene security and processing measures need to be taken, such as covering ventilation holes in the roof if rain is approaching or whether high humidity will prevent your evidence samples from air drying promptly.
Most weather apps have autolocation based on the GPS signal from your phone, meaning that the app knows where you are and provides the weather data for that location. You can also lookup weather for a different area and program a favorites list for different locations you travel to repeatedly.

Mapping
Mapping applications, many of which are GPS-based, have both administrative and investigative value. Using the GPS in the phone and the mapping app, you are able to:
  • Enter the address of the call you are going to and immediately get customized directions.


  • Plan a route from one location to another for a given day and receive a custom route.


  • Use the phone as a mobile GPS to get walking directions from one address to another, which can assist in tracing witness routes, finding the vantage point a witness had, or understanding the spatial relationship between addresses.


  • Obtain an overhead map showing all the roads into a certain area or to a certain address, which can help you understand witness statements, potential access points to a property, and arrival and departure routes for vehicles.
Mapping can also be used in other apps that help you find traffic, tides, mass transit, or parking information.

Remember that any information gleaned from one of these apps should be verified with another source. Roads change, streets are temporarily closed, and other events occur that may make the situation on the ground not the same as it is in a published map.

Administrative Management
There are a wide variety of management and productivity apps that can help you organize your daily tasks, including:
  • “To do” list apps, many with the ability to manage multiple custom “to do” lists.


  • Contacts apps to manage all your outside expert and scene management resources, from forensic chemists on call to heavy equipment excavators.


  • Calendar apps to keep track of your appointments, training sessions, meetings, and presentations.


  • Email “on the road,” set to copy yourself, to assist in communicating with your office, including your whereabouts, which is especially important if you are working a scene alone.


  • A business card reader that scans a card placed on the screen of your smartphone and stores it with your contacts.


  • An “hours tracker,” which is especially useful for private sector fire investigators, where you can track your hours working on individual projects using just a few finger taps.


  • A dictation app that you can use to make notes to yourself or to forward to others.
Take a little time to think about the administrative tasks you do every day and then search the available apps for your device to see what’s out there to help you manage and streamline the administrative process.

Incident Management
There are several Incident Command System apps that can help the investigator handle large incidents, including the National Incident Management System (NIMS) components, concepts, and planning forms. Some of the ICS apps also provide an interactive look at the chain of command structure, which can assist with proper reporting at the scene.

Scene Safety
There are a number of apps available, and more are under development, that assist the investigator in working safely at the scene. Some examples of currently available scene safety apps include:
  • NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards


  • DOT 2008 Emergency Response Guidebook


  • Wireless Information System for Emergency Responders (WISER) from the U.S. National Library of Medicine
These apps can assist in identifying hazards at the scene and provide information on how to respond to the identified hazard.

Locators
There are a number of locator apps available that can help the investigator find businesses nearby. Some locator apps also provide ratings and reviews for these businesses. A locator app works by using the GPS in the smartphone to determine your location, and then searching a database of nearby businesses that fit the criteria you enter, which is typically a category of business or government, and sometimes augmented with additional search filters, such as distance, price, or number of “stars.” These locator apps can be extremely helpful when you are not familiar with the location and can assist you in both physical comfort and investigative ways. Some examples of what you can find with locator apps include:
  • The address of the nearest government and public service offices, including firehouses, police stations, courthouses, and federal offices.


  • A restaurant for lunch or coffee.


  • A nearby hotel if the investigation keeps you overnight unexpectedly.


  • A repair shop if you have car or equipment trouble.


  • A list of gas stations nearby, which can help you canvass for where an ignitable liquid might have been obtained.


  • A specific place that a witness told you they were at the time of the fire or the location of their place of work or other important investigative detail.
There are also people locator apps, including offender and sex offender locator apps.

You should be aware that the locator app databases may not be definitive or complete and any information should always be confirmed with another source.

Web Searching
Most smartphones include a web searching capability, which investigators can use to look up information such as deeds and records while still in the field instead of having to go back to the office. Be aware that some web sites have a mobile device version of their site just for smartphones. These mobile device versions may or may not include all the information available on the “regular” web site. Also, there are some web site features that may not work on your smartphone. Consult your provider for more information.

Utilities
Many apps offer handy utilities that fill a specific need for fire investigators:
  • • Flashlight app that uses a brightly lit screen to turn the smartphone into a flashlight.


  • • Police scanner apps to help understand emergency response in the area of the incident.


  • • Barcode scanner apps that scan the barcode on any product and can, in many cases, identify the product and some of the places it may be sold.


  • • Ruler app can provide a quick and dirty measurement of small items — please note that this is not a replacement for a proper scale in an evidence photo.


  • • A level app for use at the scene.


  • • Compass apps provides cardinal directions — this is especially handy for your diagrams and photo locations.


  • • A unit conversion calculator (metric to English and English to metric units).


  • • Electrical tools apps provide electrical calculators and tools that may assist in understanding the electrical system at the scene.


  • • The CFI Calculator app available from CFITrainer.Net can assist you with basic field calculations for Flame Height, Heat Flux, Flashover and Fire. Growth


  • • iTunes, which enables you to listen to podcasts on topics of professional interest, including the CFITrainer.Net Monthly Podcast.
There are thousands of apps and more are being released every day. Set aside some time to browse through the apps available for your smartphone and think through how they might assist you in the field. Be sure to keep your apps up to date and periodically look for new apps that have been released and may be beneficial to you. Put your smartphone to work for you and you can work more efficiently, safely, and thoroughly.


 
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