The Fire Scene As A Crime Scene
Detective Dennis Rogers, CFI
DuPage County (IL) Sheriffs Department
Rogers, Dennis. The fire scene as a crime scene.
Fire & Arson Investigator. Vol 47 No 1 (September 1996). p 26-27.
There have been enormous strides made in both the scientific community and in methods of investigation over the past several years. Combining state of the art investigative tools, along with sound scientific facts, will establish a professional and truth seeking investigation. In most municipalities the local fire department conducts their own fire investigation, while the local police agency conducts an associated investigation. If the barriers between both agencies are broken down and a healthy communication exists, along with respect for each departments' fields of expertise, an enormous professional breakthrough can occur.
The responsibility of the crime scene technician is evidence recovery and preservation. The technician has the task of going to a crime scene to identify, process, collect and preserve all evidence related to a particular crime. The capabilities of a crime scene technician may be taken for granted or not fully understood by the fire department. This applies to the investigator who is working alone or as a member of a task force. This problem can be reduced when you have a crime scene technician who is also an arson investigator.
Not only are you working with a police office who understands fire behavior, but also the capabilities of the fire department in their suppression methods. A police officer can be a great asset because he is aware of neighborhood patterns, vehicles and other associated demographics. Police officers work with people on a daily basis and are acquainted with known criminals and become aware of the mentality of the criminal thus knowing the attributes of the arsonists.
The knowledge of state law, especially regarding statutes of search and seizure as it applies to evidence collection, belongs to the crime scene technician. Not only will the crime scene technician locate and recognize, but properly package the desired evidence to be submitted to the crime lab in a timely, safe and secure manner. This is desirable for keeping the chain of custody. The submitting of evidence must be done correctly in order to obtain accurate lab results with various forms of evidence. The technician follows such standards and guidelines as NFPA 921 and Kirk's Fire Investigation manual as well as being aware of the ASTM standards for the crime lab. In return the evidence stands a very good chance of being admissible in a court of law.
It is widely known that the fire service has been traditionally at the forefront of fire investigation. It is scene driven when it comes to investigation. On the other hand, law enforcement usually does not quite understand the severity of an incendiary type of fire. They often categorize it as a crime against property, when in fact it is a crime against person and needs to be investigated accordingly. The FBI includes arson as one of the eight major crimes in the U.S. Tragically, the annual statistics state that there is only a two percent conviction rate of arsonists for every one hundred known arson fires.
If a team approach can be implemented between both agencies, the arson cases that are based on circumstantial evidence may become solid cases with direct evidence that is recovered at the crime scene. This may link a suspect to the crime. As professor Edmond Locard, 1877 founder and director of the Institute of Criminalistics, University of Lyons, France stated
"Every contact leaves its trace." It is practically impossible for an individual to commit a criminal act without leaving some trace and evidence of his or her act.
The crime scene technician has the initial responsibility for collecting physical evidence and is a trained specialist in evidence recovery and preservation. The success of the forensic scientist is directly dependent upon the capabilities of the crime scene technician. Firefighters believing the old wives' tale that fire destroys evidence of its own cause, coupled with the suppression methods used in firefighting, will in fact decimate what ever evidence was possibly left behind. This is not so if an investigator keeps an open mind to the different types of potential evidence.
The crime scene technician is concerned with collection of facts that will lead to the ultimate solution of the crime. We all know how important it is to rule out accidental causes and how useful photographs, scene diagrams and the collection of possible accelerants are to prove the crime of arson. Let's look at a few other types of direct evidence that could make the case very solid.
Fingerprints found at a crime scene fall into three categories, patent, plastic and latent. Patent fingerprints are those that are readily seen and are transferred from the friction ridges by a foreign substance, like blood, paint or dirt. Plastic fingerprints are prints that are impressed into a soft substance such as paint, putty or wax. The latent impressions are those left behind by the natural body secretions, such as perspirations, or oils and acids.
Some texts recommend, for recovery purposes, that a large number of prints will be located at the point of entry and exit, along with obvious items handled by the criminal. For example, a gas can which was left at the scene or a window that was broken to gain entry into a building could be harboring multiple fingerprints.
Technological advancements, such as the AFIS (Automatic Fingerprint Identification System), have the ability to identify an unknown print among millions that are stored in the data bank of the computer and make an identification in approximately 10 to 15 minutes. This is true only if the perpetrator's fingerprints are on file. There is no better direct evidence than placing a criminal at the scene of a crime other than their fingerprints. There are many techniques and methods in recovering fingerprints such as the use of different powders, iodine fuming and ultraviolet lighting.
Impression evidence such as shoe prints, tire tracks or tool marks leave an impression in soft materials. Methods of photography, casting or molding can be used to reproduce these impressions. These impressions can be used for demonstrative purposes in court. Different class and individual characteristics can be identified if a sufficient number of points of comparison or similarities are identified on a particular object.
Blood and body fluids are types of evidence occasionally found at the crime scene. This type of evidence may serve as a way to identify the perpetrator, or it can provide elements to determine the proof of guilt or exoneration of others. The appearance and configuration of blood stains, in spatter formation, can tell its own crime story. The crime scene technician has been trained to identify certain body fluid evidence and knows the proper methods of packaging for submission for lab analysis.
There are other types of physical evidence. They range from hair, glass and paint to drugs, documents or other trace related items. Left to the imagination, and the tenacious investigative ability of the crime scene investigator, the list of physical evidence is endless.
By using the physical evidence approach, along with the evidence developed through interviews of informants and witnesses, the successful prosecution of the person or persons responsible for the crime can be better realized. It is the preponderance of all conceivable evidence that may become extremely valuable during the investigation and its presentation in court.
To conclude, there is a reason so much emphasis is placed on physical evidence. It is because evidence does not lie, it cannot be impeached, it is not affected by the sensationalism of the crime and it has been accepted by the court systems throughout the world.
1. Cunliffe, F. and Piazza, P., Criminalistics and Scientific investigation. Englewood, Cliffs, NJ Prentice-Hall Inc., 1980.
2. Eltzeroth, Ronald, The crime scene technician manual. Police training Institute, University of Illinois, 1981.
3. NFPA 921, Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigation, Quincy, MA, 1995
4. DeHaan, John D., Kirk's Fire Investigation, 3rd Edition,
5. U.S. Dept. of Justice, Uniform Crime Reports, Crime in the U.S., 1994, Release date Nov. 1995.
About the Author
Dennis Rogers is a crime scene detective with the DuPage County Sheriffs Office. He is a certified instructor for the State of Illinois "Evidence Technician" course. He is an active member of the International Association of Identification.
Mr. Rogers is a recognized Certified Fire Investigator in the state of Illinois and the I.A.A.I.
As a third generation volunteer firefighter, Dennis is a lieutenant/EMT with the Warrenville, Illinois Fire Protection District. He also serves on three joint police and fire investigative task forces in DuPage County, Illinois.
Reprinted with permission.