Arson Investigations: Apathy vs. Understanding
R. Kirk Hankins
Hankins, R. Kirk. Arson investigations: apathy
Fire and Arson Investigator. Vol 48 No 2 (December 1997). p 24-25.
Fire investigators all too well understand the road blocks in conducting
fire investigations and successfully prosecuting the offenders. An unending
litany of these road blocks can be heard from any number of investigators.
The purpose of the I.A.A.I. and similar organizations is to dismantle some,
if not all of those obstacles.
Unfortunately, one major obstacle is most often due to our own investigative
agencies. In too many police departments, having a qualified fire investigator
on staff is more often the exception rather than the norm. Departments will
typically send patrol officers, detectives and evidence technicians to bank
robberies where the total take from one teller drawer may be less than $20,000.
Numerous investigative and follow up hours are conducted without a second
In residential or commercial incendiary fires, however, the same departments
may be totally apathetic. The fire may not even rate a response from a police
investigative unit. Patrol officers will respond to assist with traffic
and crowd control and most likely be mandated to write "the police
report" in cases of criminal fires. Usually that report parrots what
the fire department officials tell the officer. That report very seldom
reaches the investigative unit.
Fatality fires and those resulting in mass media coverage, will normally
rate a full scale investigative blitz by public safety agencies. While we
can all agree that fatal fires deserve this increased response, should we
not be applying the same efforts toward all fires?
In a typical year, arson fires account for an estimated $2 billion in
damages and more than 700 deaths. There is no disputing that arson is one
of the most costly crime that plagues our country.
In some cases fire departments reason that since arson is a crime, the
proper venue for investigation is the police. Police may argue that fire
officials are the responsible agency. We can all agree that in the instance
of arson, specific knowledge is required which encompasses both police and
To enhance the understanding of the incendiary fire problem, the establishment
of the "Task Force" concept can address that need. Fire and police
investigators working in concert, both at the scene and during subsequent
investigations, increases the knowledge of both. This approach will also
improve the probability of identifying the responsible parties.
The task force concept is most often opposed due to the inference that
it is a large scale operation. This does not need to be the case. The task
force may be composed of a minimum of two investigators. For larger fires
or multiple events, i.e., serial arsons, the staffing can be increased to
meet the need.
The success of the task force concept is well know. The U.S. Justice
and Treasury Departments established the Church Arson Task Force in the
spring of 1996 to address those fires. According to media reports, 199 suspects
were arrested in connection with 150 investigations. Their reported 35 percent
arrest rate was more than double the 16 percent general arson arrest rate.
In addition, 110 of the defendants were successfully convicted. Similar
results have been achieved by municipal and state task forces working on
a variety of criminal issues in addition to arsons. The task force concept
can be effective in dismantling jurisdictional questions concerning fire
Assistance from two other sources can also be utilized. Prosecutors and
insurance representatives should be included in your public safety community
response to these fires. Many task forces include them in their organization
or at the very least, request consultation during the investigation. They
are a valuable source of information. A successful prosecution mandates
Prosecutors can review reports for additional investigation, analyze
evidence, interpret arson immunity statutes and assist in directing the
investigation to meet prosecutorial requirements. Insurance representatives
can assist in logistical matters, provide documentation from the application,
examination under oath, financial statements and their own investigative
reports. (Careful consideration should be given to the pertinent arson immunity
statute when requesting or utilizing the above information.)
A method of visualizing this approach is to think of the fire tetrahedron.
Each leg of the tetrahedron is represented by fire, police, prosecutor and
insurance representatives. If one leg is removed, the entire investigation
It is incumbent upon fire investigators to foster an understanding of
arson investigations to overcome apathy. Utilizing the task force concept
is but only one of many approaches available. We must continue our efforts
to educate our community, co-workers and administrators. Arson awareness
week objectives should foster year long efforts on our part.
Knowledge is power. Knowledge not used is wasted.
About the Author
Mr. Hankins is the Regional Manager and a Special Investigator with Consolidated
Forensic Investigations, Inc., which was founded in 1996. Prior to that
he was the Regional Director for Independent Insurance Investigations, Inc.
He has conducted numerous fire and insurance loss investigations for various
insurance carriers and attorneys. Mr. Hankins has been qualified as an "expert"
in fire and explosive investigations in Missouri.
Mr. Hankins is a former Boone County Sheriffs Deputy and currently a
Police Officer for the Columbia, Missouri Police Department. He is a graduate
of the University of Missouri Law Enforcement Training Academy. He has worked
in both the Patrol and Investigative Divisions of his Department and has
been a career Police Officer for 15 years, with over 2900 hours of training.
He is the primary Fire Investigator for the Columbia Police Department
and is responsible for all explosive related incidents and post blast investigations.
He is a member of the Boone County Fire Protection District where he also
serves as the Bomb Technician. He serves as a Technical Search Specialist
with Missouri Task Force One, Missouri's Urban Search and Rescue Team.
Mr. Hankins has a Bachelor Degree in Forest Management from the University
of Missouri-Columbia and a Bachelor Degree in Administration of Justice
from Columbia College, Columbia, Missouri.
He is both a Police and Fire Service Instructor teaching for the University
of Missouri, Columbia Police and Fire Departments, Kansas City, Missouri
Fire Department and others. He has addressed seminars for the Missouri Chapter
of the International Association of Arson Investigators, the Kansas City
Arson Task Force and others.
Mr. Hankins has been certified as a Fire Investigator by the Missouri
Division of Fire Safety, the Professional Fire and Fraud Investigators Association
of Missouri, the International Association of Arson Investigators, and the
Missouri Chapter IAAI. He is also certified by the Missouri Division of
Fire Safety as a Firefighter I.
He is a graduate of the F.B.I.-U.S. Army Ordnance "Hazardous Device
Mr. Hankins is a Director in the International Association of Arson Investigators,
Past President of the Missouri Chapter IAAI, member of the Kansas Chapter
IAAI, member of the Professional Fire and Fraud Investigators Association
of Missouri, member of Mid-Missouri Major Case Squad and a member of the
International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators.
Mr. Hankins has authored other articles for the "Fire & Arson
Reprinted with permission.