Auto Arson Detection, Training Key #213. International Association of
Chiefs of Police--Professional Standards Division. 1974.
Abstract: This article provides procedures for examining the major
systems of a vehicle. The investigator should always compare what he learns
from the fire scene to information learned from interviews of witnesses
and owner of the car. These facts should reinforce each other and if there
is a discrepancy, the fire was probably arson.
The fuel system should be closely examined. Examine the fuel tank to
determine if it has been tampered with. Fuel lines should be intact and
there should be no signs of tool marks. If the fire was a result of the
carburetor, the device should be severely damaged and partly melted. If
the fire was purposely set to look like a carburetor fire, the damage will
not be as severe.
An electrical short can cause a vehicle fire when the battery's charge
is low. An investigator can measure the battery's charge with a portable
tester. A fully charged battery does not support a claim that an electrical
short occurred. Experts should examine the wiring if there are suspicious
circumstances surrounding the electrical system. The investigator should
not attempt to disassemble the wiring because evidence could be destroyed.
Automobile fires are often contained in the compartment in which they
started. The parts located in the engine compartment will not burn the entire
car unless an accelerant is used to spread the flames. The engine compartment
can reveal possible motives for arson. If a serious defect in the engine
is discovered, the owner may have wanted to collect insurance money rather
than pay for repairs.
The passenger compartment also offers clues to investigators. Most car
owners guilty of arson will claim their cars were stolen before the fire
was set. The investigator must validate this claim. The ignition should
be checked for damage. If the ignition is intact, the investigator must
figure out how the vehicle made its way to the fire scene. The position
of windows is also important. Some arsonists will roll the windows down
to supply the fire with oxygen. This should be noted if it is winter and
the passengers would not normally roll down the windows. The condition of
the windows is also important. A typical car fire would generate enough
heat to melt the glass windows. An arson fire using an accelerant would
generate much more heat, melting the windows.
Other hints that arson occurred include missing accessories, indicating
that owner removed his possessions before the fire. If the car is stripped
of parts, it may have been stolen and burned to destroy evidence. The exterior
of the car should also be examined for damage, which could be bodywork the
owner did not want to pay for. Once the car has been thoroughly examined,
the investigator should search the scene for traces of accelerant.
For more information, contact:
International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP)
515 N. Washington Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
Phone: (703) 836-6767 or 1-800-THE-IACP