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Electronic Databases for the Fire/Arson Investigator

By Robert A. Corry
Director, Fire Investigation Specialist
American Re-Insurance


I. Law Enforcement Databases

II. Insurance Information Databases

III. Public Records Database Services

IV. CD-ROM Databases

V. The Internet


I. Law Enforcement Databases

Nearly every American law enforcement agency has, or has ready access to, a computer terminal linking that department to the network of local, state and federal government databases providing detailed information on persons, motor vehicles and many other subjects of concern to police and criminal investigators. Additionally, this same network provides the terminal user with the ability to broadcast specific types of urgent information from their department directly to a second department and also to regional, national or even international police agencies.

Each state identifies its law enforcement database programs by a unique acronym (name). Recognizing this, InterFIRE will describe the major categories of law enforcement electronic information of interest to fire investigators. Many developed nations have similar networks & databases.

How can a fire/arson investigator gain access to law enforcement databases?

Public Safety:

Your community's Fire Investigation Unit should contain law enforcement personnel from municipal, county/state and federal law enforcement agencies. Sworn police officers already have access to these databases. There are penalties, including incarceration, for dissemination of information from these databases to unauthorized persons. Consult with your local prosecutor or system administrator to learn the rules governing your jurisdiction.

In an increasing number of jurisdictions, fire service personnel assigned to fire/arson investigation units have become sworn "peace officers," Sheriff's Deputies, Special State Police Officers or U.S. Marshal Deputies in order to gain authorization to use the law enforcement computer system, to apply for and serve warrants, make arrests and carry weapons.

Training on the proper way to use these databases is available through your state's law enforcement academies.

SIU or Claims Personnel:

Access to Law enforcement databases is usually restricted to police officers. You have the ability to utilize public record databases that may contain criminal docket information. Checking for law suits, judgments, liens and attachments on a person under investigation for fraud may be helpful since, increasingly, tort suits are filed by crime victims seeking restitution or compensation for offenses committed against them or their property.

Some criminal records are public records. Records in trial courts of grand jury indictments, arraignments and dispositions of trials are generally public record. In most jurisdictions a police department's case assignment and arrest records are also public record. Some of this information may be available through a public record vendor database search. Check with an attorney in the claim's jurisdiction to learn applicable state law on this subject.

2. Important law enforcement databases for fire/arson investigators:

a. Wants/Warrants Database:

This database is queried to determine if a given person has arrest warrants lodged against him/her. Generally, only felony warrants where the issuing state agrees to extradite the wanted person are maintained in the NCIC (National Crime Information Computer) maintained by the FBI. State level computers maintain both felony and misdemeanor warrants. Persons or vehicles suspected of involvement in a serious crime or, officially reported as "missing", are sometimes identified in this database so the agency making the check is alerted to this status.

To query this database authorities usually must have a name, address, date of birth, social security number or alias or some combination of these. "Name Only" searches are possible, but seldom used, with common surnames. Most of these databases will support queries with a close misspelling or even a phonetic pronunciation.

NCIC is capable of performing an "off-line" search that may help track the movements of a specific individual over a period of time. This search can be extended from local to national scope and can reveal the date/time/locations where a suspect received a traffic ticket or was queried for criminal or license or vehicle registration information. Because this establishes the location of a suspect at an exact time this type of search may be especially helpful in investigations involving a mobile serial arsonist or a suspect in a major arson case.

b. Criminal History Database:

This database, called CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information) in many jurisdictions, is usually based on Board of Probation records. The Board of Probation keeps track of criminal trial court dispositions on all cases above minor misdemeanor crimes. A person convicted (or acquitted) of various statutory offenses will usually have "a record" that can often be electronically retrieved.

Note that juvenile records are usually inaccessible except under special circumstances. Citizens who have a criminal record can, under certain circumstances, have it sealed after remaining felony free for a minimum number of years.

In addition to records stored electronically in these databases there are also several important categories of "paper" records on individual defendants in court cases that fire/arson investigator's should be familiar with.

Generally courts maintain three distinct paper files on each case. A "Docket File" is maintained by the criminal clerk and keeps track of arraignment, bail, case continuance and other notes and administrative information. The "Probation Department File" usually contains records of meetings, appointments, referrals and administrative and investigative information. The "Police/Prosecutor's File" contains more information about the criminal case and may include information not even present in police investigative files.

c. Motor Vehicle Department Database:

The database maintained by the state's Department of Motor Vehicles contains detailed information on registered motor vehicles of all types, personal information of all licensed drivers and persons under suspension/revocation, accident and motor vehicle driving record information and more.

A typical driver's license query usually contains information including full name, last known address, date of birth, driver number/social security number, maiden name and more. Most DMV databases can provide an alphabetized list of operators that might be helpful in identifying next-of-kin.

Most DMV's can query their databases to product various types of results. For example, most could provide a listing of licensed drivers who live on given streets. This information could provide investigators with the identity of adult neighbors around a suspect's residence.

DMV's usually can run a partial plate or even a vehicle description (make, model, color, etc.) and produce a printout of similar vehicles with known plates and owner and address information. This would give a fire investigator the ability to run leads on a major or serious case.

Contact your DMV's "Special Investigation Unit" for additional information on performing this type of search.

d. Stolen Article Database:

State and federal law enforcement agencies maintain computerized records of many categories of property reported stolen. Vehicles, weapons, boats, paintings, computers and innumerable other categories of goods are candidates for inclusion into this database. If a fire/arson investigator comes across an article with a defaced serial number or under circumstances that are criminal in nature during a legal search a query may reveal a theft want.

e. AFIS (Fingerprint) Database:

A number of states and federal agencies such as the FBI maintain AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification System) computers holding huge repositories of digitized latent fingerprints from many individuals.

Convicted criminals, military personnel, persons who have applied for firearm licenses, law enforcement officers and many others have fingerprints on file. Latent fingerprints of unknown suspects from crime scenes are compared against the AFIS database to identify the specific perpetrator. A fraction of a latent print as large as the eraser on the end of a pencil may contain enough points of comparison to make a positive identification.

Fire investigators need to know that pioneering work was done by the Houston Fire Department to develop latent fingerprints on burned or sooted objects from fire scenes. The AFT and FBI as well as many state level laboratories have the ability to process burned or sooted materials for latent fingerprints. If the laboratory/agency that processes evidence for fingerprints in your jurisdiction is not presently capable of this contact the ATF National Laboratory, 1401 Research Blvd., Rockville, Maryland (Tel#301) 762 - 9800 and ask for the Latent Fingerprint Section.

The FBI announced in late 1998 that they brought a National DNA database on-line to help match blood, semen or other body products/tissue from crime scenes, unknown persons or fire victims against known samples previously collected from incarcerated criminals and others on file.

f. FinCEN:

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) was established in 1980 by the U.S. Department of Treasury to function a multi-agency financial intelligence and analytical network to assist in investigation of money laundering and other financial crimes. Federal agencies involved in FinCEN include U.S. Customs, ATF, FBI, IRS, U.S. Postal Inspection Service and others.

Since the profit motive is the major reason most criminal activity takes place, including arson-for-profit schemes, the criminals involved are vulnerable to identification of currency transfer and seizure and forfeiture of proceeds from the crime. FinCEN collects, assesses and disseminates financial crime intelligence and coordinates and supports sophisticated investigations aimed at the financial side of criminal organizations.

When FinCEN receives inquiries from two different agencies on the same criminal, it will provide in a secure manner the linkage to have the agencies work together. Fire investigators who have investigations involving arson-for-profit rings should contact their local ATF Field Office or state police Criminal Information Section for most details about accessing FinCEN.

FinCEN's information sources fall into three major categories that could be used in the course of arson investigation; Law Enforcement, Financial, and Commercial Databases.

i. Law Enforcement Database -
This database provides, to qualified users, access to law enforcement databases on the system containing information such as case indices files and "gateway" databases which link into other electronic subsystems.

ii. Financial Database -
Contains information gleaned from reports filed by various types of financial institutions and include information from Currency Transaction Reports (CTR), Reports of International Transportation of Currency or Monetary Instruments (CMIR); Currency Transactions Reported by Casinos (CTRC) and Reports of Foreign Bank & Financial Accounts (FBAR) and Reports of Cash Payments over $10,000 Received in a Trade or Business (IRS Form 8300) required by the IRS Code.

iii. Commercial Database -
FinCEN provides access into a variety of "public records" databases valuable in locating people, conducting asset searches, records of real estate purchase/sale transactions, courthouse records and other information.

g. ATF Arson and Explosives Incident System:

The ATF Arson and Explosives Incident System will provide investigators with automated access to data on trends and incidents regarding the criminal misues of explosives and arson incidents. Information from the United States Fire Administration's (USFA's) National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS); the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI's) Bomb Data Center (BDC) and Uniform Crime Report (UCR); and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' (ATF's) Arson and Explosives Incidents System (AEXIS), as well as other sources, will be imported in to the Repository and made available to authorized users. You may contact the Arson and Explosives National Repository at: (202) 927-4590, FAX (202) 927-4570, or http://ows.atf.treas.gov:9999/

II. Insurance Information Databases*

Today, a computer and the Internet are two very important tools for a fire investigator. They allow access to a variety of existing databases, which offer a wealth of information. Some of the most important insurance industry databases for fire investigators are described here.

The insurance industry has been collecting claims loss data for many years. Today, most insurers contribute information to a property-casualty organization that maintains several large insurance loss history databases. The information contained in these databases is mainly intended for use by underwriters, claims and SIU personnel in official performance of their different functions.

There are important differences in the extent of prior loss history information between "Underwriting" and "Claims" databases.

The Underwriting database

An "Underwriting" database is intended to enable an underwriter to verify the representations contained in an application for personal lines or commercial insurance before the policy is issued for new business or upon renewal. The underwriting database contains information on every single claim submitted over the previous five years whether or not any settlement was made and regardless of the amount of the claim. This database contains submissions representing approximately 85% of the property/casualty insurance industry's loss data.

Underwriters may query this database for prior loss history by supplying any of the following information

Personal lines:

  • Current and any former name (e.g. maiden name) or alias.
  • Current and former addresses.
  • Social security number.
  • Date of birth.
  • Policy numbers.

Commercial Lines:

  • Current/previous business names and addresses.
  • DBA (doing business as) names.
  • Prior policy numbers.
  • The names of one or more business partners.
  • The Federal Tax ID number.
  • The social security number of one or more owners, partners or corporate officers.

Information contained in the underwriting database falls under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. As such, results of queries made in the normal course of underwriting are regarded as having the same level of protection as is a person's credit history. Information from the underwriting database can not be used for claim handling, special investigations or pre-employment screening.

Access to the underwriting database is restricted to insurers who have contributed a minimum of three to five years of loss data to the database.

The Insurance Claim Databases

The major insurance claim database receives claims information from over 1,500 insurance companies as well as 1,000 self-insureds representing 95% of the applicable premium volume. The difference between claims loss information in the underwriting database and the claim bases lies in completeness.

Whereas the underwriting database contains information on "every single claim submitted over the previous five years whether or not any settlement was made and regardless of the amount of the claim," the information contained in the claims database is dependent on thresholds set in individual insurance companies as to what they report. One company may choose to report all claims made against it where another may report only claims over $5,000 or some other threshold.

Traditionally, insurance companies have gathered information and maintained records on specific types of claims with a significant risk of fraud such as bodily injury, property losses, worker's compensation and motor vehicle claims. This information was isolated into databases covering a particular type of loss i.e. fire claims.

Insurance fraud investigators have long wished for a single, combined database that would merge all categories of claim information into a single database to increase efficiency and save time.

The All Claims Database, promises to do just that. That database, called ISO ClaimSearch, was developed by the Insurance Services Office (ISO) and combines the AISG injury and property databases with the NICB Vehicle Database. ISO ClaimSearch combines a number of formerly independent databases. These include:

i. The Property Insurance Loss register (PILR) - PILR was established in 1980 to help insurance carriers fight arson and other fraud in property loss claims. More than 1200 property insurance carriers submit fire/arson, burglary & theft losses representing over 95% of written premium. Each year PILR receives more than 2 million new claims and issues 340,000 reports indicating prior claim "hits" by the same individual or at the same location. Today, this database includes loss information for all perils including fire, theft & burglary losses. A PILR query may reveal the following information about a loss under investigation:

  • An insurer's prior claims;
  • Duplicate coverage;
  • Patterns of claims;
  • Mortgages, partners, and other parties to the loss; and
  • Potentially fraudulent claims.

ii. The Index System database - contains information on over 65 million bodily injury claim submissions. Each year participating carriers report an additional 20 million new claims. One in three submissions results in an outgoing report indicating a match between the claimant and past bodily injury claims by that same person.

iii. The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) which contained 65 million auto related claims.

iv. SOS-Plus database - This will connect the end user to loss history on bodily injury and property loss claims as well as public records and consumer and commercial information.

Searches across these various lines of insurance claims will be accomplished through a single query to ISO ClaimSearch. This new database allows insurers to expedite processing the majority of legitimate claims that are filed as well as provide data for better benchmarking of claims handling performance.

This new database also makes it easier to detect patterns of fraud when they exist and to uncover both organized fraud rings and the individual opportunist. Using this database, it will be possible for an investigator working in one line of insurance, such as workers compensation, to uncover connections between the claimant under investigation and a previous auto claim or arson fire.

A basic fire/arson investigation should, as a matter of routine practice, include a check of the victim's claim history.

ISO ClaimSearch presently contains over 100 million claims including personal and commercial property as well as bodily injury claims. It is the largest database of property/casualty claims information in the United States. The database is searched on and matching claims information is returned to the company either electronically or on paper. Twenty million new claims are filed annually and the database is expected to grow to 200 million claims within three years.

The database also earmarks claims that have been determined to be "suspicious or potentially fraudulent" in nature. These claims are regularly reported to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) and are also part of ISO ClaimSearch,.

The property information that is returned can assist the investigator in determining what that individual's experience is concerning property losses.

The database will provide a 6+ year history of losses including:

  1. Loss history information on the individual or business.
  2. Specific past loss history information on the address where the current loss took place.
  3. Information on all of the parties to the loss including spouses, lien holders, banks, mortgage companies & individuals.
  4. Coverage Information including the carrier involved in the prior loss, the amount of coverage, the policy number and other important information. This query helps identify multiple or duplicate coverage's on the same building.

Matching prior claims

Matching claims in the bodily injury, property and auto areas can also be important to an investigator. The individual's overall claims experience can provide valuable insight into a potential financial motive. A determination of the claims history of the business or individual should be made as early in the course of the investigation as possible.

How this is done.

Ninety-seven percent of the information that flows into the insurance databanks is sent electronically. Some individual companies may send up to 20,000 claims a day. These are filed and indexed in various ways. Information material is sorted by social security number, address, name, former name, alias, date of accident, type of injury, location of accident. Also on file are a claimant's occupation, license number, policy number, doctor or treatment facility and vehicle identification number

To track multiple claimants the computers are programmed to look for names exactly or phonetically as well as by different variations such as in Robert, Robbie and Bob. Streets addresses may be searched in a variety of ways as in #10 Main, #10 Main St., #10 Main Ave, etc. Databases are set to red flag addresses from penal facilities as well as from Post Office boxes.

An example:

Imagine an insurer experiencing a very significant increase in bodily injury claims related to automobile accidents occurring within a relatively small geographic area. A database search reveals no discernible patterns among those filing the claims but does reveal a large number of these victims are receiving medical treatment by a single medical provider. This may be an important lead in an fraud scheme.

In another case, an individual with a large "slip and fall" injury claim was unwilling to provide medical records or any details of the cause or circumstances resulting in the injury. A search under the claimant's name revealed no prior claims, but a search under the claimant's social security number revealed 12 previous bodily injury claims under 12 different names. Additional searches uncovered a relationship between this claimant, a medical provider and an attorney.

Searches of this database would also be able to identify when claims for a certain form of injury are higher in particular area of the country. It might also turn up indications of a larger proportion of house fires in a particular geographic area.

How do fire/arson investigators gain access to insurance information databases?

Public Safety:

Fire related information is currently reported by the American Insurance Service Group (AISG) to 22 State Fire Marshals on a monthly basis. State Fire Marshals in certain states have limited access to the All Claims Database. The investigator should contact their State Fire Marshal's Office, or equivalent agency, to see if they already have access. If not, the agency should make application. State Fire Marshal investigators should be a part of the fire investigation team.

All Claims Database searches are a standard feature of professional SIU investigations. Public safety personnel may be able to acquire search results by filing an Arson Immunity Request according to their state law. Public investigators, for the most part, may see this information only if it is already included in any files they receive under applicable arson immunity laws.

SIU or Claims Personnel:

If your insurance company is a member organization to AISG and has contributed claims loss data according to their standards then you are eligible to query the All Claims Database. If they do not, they need to make certain that the loss claimed has been reported to AISG by your Insurance Company and that they are now eligible to obtain copies of any matching reports.

III. Public Records Database Services:

Horse & Buggy Days

Only as few short years ago basic training for fire/arson investigators included a monotonous process called the "Paper Chase." After a fire was classified incendiary, an avenue that needed to be explored on insured property was a possible "arson-for-profit" scheme.

A fire investigator was detailed to go down to the County Registry of Deeds and search voluminous paper records to find out who actually owned the building, what was paid for it, how much was the mortgage, if there were tax liens and an assortment of other problems possibly affecting the owner's solvency or the building's value. In the Civil Clerk's Office efforts were made to learn if there were suits or other legal instruments affecting the building or owner. In still another place, the Probate Office, were the records of divorce and so forth. Few fire/arson investigators ever became proficient in the "Paper Chase." Many prosecutions were waylaid as a result of lack of available time or an inability to competently perform this complicated research.

New Technology

Today, this problem has changed because of new electronic "public record" databases in existence. Searching electronic databases for public record information can occur in "real time." This capability will greatly assist fire investigators who need to develop and follow leads efficiently. Databases don't represent the actual records but rather an "index." Investigators seeking to use public records for legal purposes (trial evidence, etc.) usually will still need to get "certified copies" from the custodian agency of the records.

The advantage of the public record databases is related to speed and scope of the search. Instead of restricting your search to one piece of property the databases are capable of performing "asset searches" within your county, state, region or nationally. You will learn the entire record not just what you come across on the "book & page." The cost is surprisingly low considering savings of investigator time.

How do fire/arson investigators gain access to these databases?

Public Safety:

"Public Record" databases are generally not listed in the "yellow pages" of most communities. The principal users of these services are state and federal law enforcement agencies, lawyers involved in civil litigation and debt collection, banks and credit unions, private detective agencies and other entities that need to perform asset searches, find people or check the veracity of information.

We recommend that you begin with a call to the Criminal Information Division of your state police, county sheriff or the local office of the ATF or FBI. Find out which database vendor their agency uses or would recommend. Solicit opinions & recommendations from other users such as civil attorneys for opinions and advice.

Contact the vendor directly and ask for brochures that describe the terms and capabilities of their database. Find out who their major competitors are in your area. Contact the competitors for similar information packages.

If you have the ability to search the Internet run a search engine on "public record databases" (40,000 hits) or "premium databases" (5000 hits).

If database research is well managed the costs can be budgeted by one of the agencies involved in the fire investigation unit. There are some county or federal prosecutor's offices that will financially support investigative processes. Support can be obtained from state police Criminal Investigation Bureau's or from various law enforcement agencies with personnel involved in the investigation team.

SIU or Claims Personnel:

Chances are your company's SIU or outside investigation vendor already has this capability. If your insurance company is a member organization to AISG and has contributed claims loss data according to their standards then you are eligible to query the All Claims Database. If they do not, they need to make certain that the property loss has been reported to AISG by the Insurance Company and obtained copies of the matching reports.

Individual vendors offer access to a wide variety of database options ranging from local to national asset searches, "skiptracing" - finding someone who is "missing", or identifying liens & attachments, bankruptcies, divorce and other probate records and much more.

Bundled Search Packages:

Some vendors offer "bundles" or "packages" of searches. For example, one large vendor offers a $7 search that, "scans over 2 billion records in hundreds of databases to create a single comprehensive report on an individual using as little as a last name and providing the individual's full name, alias names, date of birth, telephone number, social security number, driver's license information, vehicle information, criminal docket information, most current address and previous addresses, neighbors names, addresses & telephone numbers. This bundled search then links the subject to possible relatives, real property ownership (address, property type, approximate value), bankruptcies, tax liens, judgements, UCC filings, corporate affiliations, aircraft, watercraft, stock ownership details and other important details."

Once a fire investigator is able to link into a premium public record database, the daunting "paper chase" can often be accomplished in minutes right from his/her desk. Most vendors are stronger in one part of the country than another. Some specialize in certain types of information. Some offer a greater variety of databases. Investigators should be aware that different vendors might have vastly different cost structures, levels of service and varying quality of available information. This is one area where the expression, "Let the Buyer Beware" should be taken literally. Comparison-shopping is a must.

InterFIRE cannot recommend one vendor over any other. It is our experience that the top public record database vendors tend to share a number of characteristics; they permit a free trial run, they will train your personnel for free, their databases are updated frequently (at least every six months), and users can either perform an on-line search themselves or have a staff expert assist them.

Many SIU investigators and larger law enforcement agencies probably already subscribe to one or more of these services. Filing an appropriate "Arson Immunity Request" to the insurance carrier on a given fire/arson case may reveal files already containing "public record" database research.

Fire/arson investigation benefits greatly from getting "Public Record" information early in the investigative process to generate leads and reveal lies and inaccuracies. Incorporating investigative personnel from a law enforcement agency that has the present capacity to research Public Record databases is another method of acquiring this resource.

IV. CD-ROM Databases.

There are a variety of CD-ROM programs available in office supply stores, computer software stores or through mail-order catalogues that can assist fire & arson investigators. Telephone numbers, drawing programs for architecture and interior design and database programs are among the potentially useful.

One CD-ROM product contains information on 115,000,000 listed telephone numbers in the United States. Investigators can search a number of different ways to obtain information about a particular individual. For example, with the telephone "white pages" CD-ROM you can search the entire country or, limit the search to a specific state, a metropolitan area, a city or town, a telephone area code or a zip code.

You can search using a name only, an address only, or just a telephone number. The product, if it matches, will provide the full name, full mailing address with a listed telephone number.

A CD-ROM product, designed for business users, and available commercially, will provide the following information on individuals:

Name & complete address.
Telephone numbers.
Estimated household income.
Estimated home value.
Age & gender of occupants.
Length of residence.

Another CD-ROM database lists over 10 million businesses by name & address, telephone number, employee size range and estimated sales, credit rating code, etc.

How do fire/arson investigators gain access to CD-ROM databases?

Public Safety:

These products are widely available through office supply stores, software stores in malls and other locations, in catalogues and elsewhere. The best products have a 6 month shelf life, have low cost upgrades available, have databases matching or close to 115,000,000 names and allow the types of searches described above. You may want to get recommendations from users of the product or check PC Magazine, or similar, for recommendations and ratings.

SIU or Claims Personnel:

Access to Law enforcement databases is usually restricted to police officers. You have the ability to utilize public record databases that may contain criminal docket information. Checking for law suits, judgements, liens and attachments on a person under investigation for fraud may be helpful since, increasingly, tort suits are filed by crime victims seeking restitution or compensation for offenses committed against them or their property.

V. The Internet

a. The "Net"

The Internet is made up of over 80,000 academic, commercial, government & military interconnected computer networks in more than 200 countries. The "Net" is an important resource for fire/arson investigators right now that promises to be even more important as time goes on.

The Internet is the world's largest network of independent computer systems that have agreed to work together to provide a global communications facility. Once you are familiar with a few basic techniques you should be able to either go directly to a web site of value or "surf the net" & find what you are looking for.

There are a number of Internet services of value to fire/arson investigators:

  • "Web sites" - Literally millions of people/organizations/government agencies that have "web sites" that a user can access with FTP (file transfer protocol) and then have the choice to read or download text, graphics/sounds, etc. into their own computer and print it out. Most of the important web sites of interest to fire investigators are free.
  • "E-mail" (electronic mail) - Provides a user with the ability to send and receive letters & files to/from other users around the world - instantly and for free.
  • "Newsgroups" - Bulletin boards that contain information and commentary from people about a specific subject (i.e. arson investigation, explosive ordinance disposal, terrorism, etc.).
  • "World Wide Web" - An electronic interface (switchboard) that allows you to link into the Internet system.

b. Requirements

The only requirements you need to get on the Net are a computer and a modem that hooks into an ordinary telephone jack and a service contract with a local "Internet provider" or, membership in a national service such as America - Online, CompuServe or similar. Today, a one-month agreement with a Internet Provider costs about $10 and may include 20 - 30 hours of free Internet access time. One-month of unlimited Internet use with one of the national providers usually costs about $20.

c. Researching on the Net

The first time you go on-line you will probably see the Internet provider's "home page." Chances are you can jump from there directly to other web sites that will give you the local/national news, weather, sports, events of interest and much more. If you click on the icon for "Search the Web" you will get a screen with a blinking cursor in a text box. If you enter "arson" in that box and then click on "go" within seconds the "search engine" will identify 90,000 or more web sites that may have information for you.

The first ten or twenty sites that most closely match your topic will come up automatically. Scroll down the page reading the thumbnail descriptions until you find one that seems to meet your needs. Just double click on the site's highlighted name to open it. If you like what you see you can read it on the computer screen or choose to save the information to your computer's hard drive.

Investigators can use the following formats to improve their odds at getting the right web sites:

A search for... Returns pages containing...
fire arson fire and/or arson preferring pages with the phrase fire arson
"fire arson" the word fire next to the word arson
+fire arson fire, maybe arson
+fire+arson both fire and arson in the document, not necessarily next to one another
+fire-arson pages containing the word fire; pages with the word arson are ranked lower
John Smith the name John Smith (Remember to capitalize proper nouns)
John, Smith the name John and the name Smith

d. Bookmarks

If you want to be able to return to that web site sometime just click on the "Bookmarks" menu and click on "Add a Bookmark." The next time you want to return to that site simply click on "Go to Bookmarks" and then click on the name of the site and you'll be back to it in seconds.

If you are interested in speeding up research consider disabling the "graphics" from the websites you visit. To do this simply click on the "Options" menu and then see if there is a checkmark next to "Auto Load Images" on the pull down menu. If there is a checkmark next to "Auto Load Images", click on it to remove graphics. All the new websites that you open will be "text only." This is much faster.

e. Search Engines

The best way to search the web for sites of interest is to simply use one of the "search engines" supplied by your Internet vendor. Occasionally you can locate a specific major organization's website by pulling down the "File" menu click on "Open" (or, Ctrl + "O") and then entering the organization's simple Internet address & appropriate "domain."

f. Searching for fire/arson related websites

Most of these are common sense. For example, www.ford.com will take you to the Ford Motor Company's website, www.iaai.org will take you to the International Association of Arson Investigators website, www.atf.gov will take you to the Bureau of Alcohol of Tobacco & Firearms website and so forth.

Domain (i.e., zone) Meaning
.com Commercial organization
.edu Educational institution
.gov Government body or department
.int International Organization (e.g. NATO)
.mil Military site
.net Networking organizations
.org Anything that doesn't fit anywhere else, such as professional societies, non-profit organizations, etc.

g. interFIRE VR highly recommends these websites as a place to start

interFIRE VR Recommended Web Sites Contents
www.interfire.org

interFIRE VR On-Line

Includes articles, reprints, features, message boards, training dates, and other fire investigation information.

www.atf.gov

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, Washington DC

Information on the agency, its programs, training, wanted persons, hot links to fire/arson/explosion websites & more.

www.amre.com

American Re-Insurance, Princeton, NJ

Information of the company, insurance, re-insurance, Arson "Tip of the Quarter", hot links to the insurance industry, insurance information databases & more.

www.fire-investigators.org

International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI), Louisville, Kentucky

The IAAI is the largest organization of fire/arson investigators in the world with Chapters in 45 states and 30 countries. The site contains fire/arson information & hotlinks to other important sites.

www.usfa.fema.gov

National Fire Academy, Emmitsburg, MD

Information about fire/arson, firefighting, fire prevention & other training programs offered by the NFA at the National Fire Academy campus (www.nfa.gov) & remotely throughout the nation. Hotlinks to major sites of interest including the Learning Resource Center, the largest fire/arson library in the world (www.lrc.gov). The library's holdings can be searched on-line. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (www.fema.gov) is the parent organization of the USFA & NFA.

www.lrc.fema.gov

Learning Resource Center, U.S. Fire Administration, Emmitsburg, MD

A major collection of information on fire/arson investigation and related topics with over 60,000 volumes and more than 200 periodicals, magazines and journals with a fire focus. This site allows the user to search the library's holdings most of which can be obtained through the inter-library loan program through your local library.

www.nfpa.org

National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA.

NFPA is a world leader in formulating and publishing codes and standards for fire safety. Its website contains information about fire protection codes, training, consultation services and hotlinks to many of the most important fire and arson investigation organization's web sites.

www.nist.gov

National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST), Gaithersburg, MD

A link to the Building & Fire Research Laboratory that conducts scientific experiments and testing of products and processes to determine fire hazard and combustion properties.

www.bfrl.nist.gov/fris/fmafris.html

Building & Fire Research Laboratory - Fire Research Information Services (FRIS).

FIREDOC is a fire research bibliographic database containing 50,000 documents on nearly any fire research related subject. The user searches the database using "key words", the author's name or word(s) in a title. The service is free and can be searched from the web, the Internet or via a modem.

h. Other Web Sites to Assist Investigators with Research

Investigators can begin their Internet public record or fire incident research by using a search engine right from their Service Provider's home page. For example, if you want to see if the State of Florida put any of its public records on the Internet begin by searching "Florida & Public Records." Scroll down the "hits" to see if the type of public record you are seeking is provided for free. Click on the highlighted name & the site will open.

If the category of public record or fire investigation research is linked to the Internet then you can open it & search for the information there. Generally these sites provide the information for free. A few may charge a nominal fee.

Remember some public records information is available through Law Enforcement Databases and CD-ROM databases. Much of this information can be quickly obtained via "Public Record Database Services" and all of it is available by going to the records custodian in person.

A specific department or organization that provides data on the web usually has a more complicated looking address because it is often a unit address within a larger organization. To examine one of these sites click on the "File" menu then click on "Open." Enter the address exactly as shown here & click OK.

i. Two hints:

If you use the web frequently for research or education you will probably find hundreds of web sites that have information that may be of value to you. Once you are on-line, organize your favorite sites by simply clicking on "Organize Favorites" and set up topic files then save each Internet address chosen as a favorite into a specific topic file.

interFIRE VR will recommend specific websites of high value to fire/arson investigators to get you going quickly and so you can see the incredible value and relevance of the Internet to your work.

To reach one of these sites all you have to do is click on the "File" menu and then click on "Open." Copy the "address" of the site exactly as shown in our listing and then click "OK." The site will appear within seconds. Almost all of these sites offer "Hotlinks" to other related sites. To reach a "Hotlink Site" just double click on its name.

j. Web sites for fire/arson & fraud investigation

InterFIRE provides additional examples of web sites that may be useful for fire/arson investigation research. Every day more sites come on-line. Some of these sites may go off line at some point.

Chemical Safety

Insurance Industry & Insurance Fraud Information

  • www.iii.org
    Insurance Information Institute - statistics and facts about arson & fraud and other subjects affecting the industry.
  • www.insure.com
    Insurance News Network.
  • www.iasiu.com
    International Association of Special Investigation Units - insurance fraud information & training.
  • www.iaati.org
    International Association of Auto Theft Investigators - information on motor vehicle fraud.
  • www.fraudcoalition.org
    Canadian Coalition against Insurance Fraud - Excellent resource on insurance scams.
  • www.cfenet.com
    Association of Certified Fraud Examiners.
  • www.propertyandcasualty.com
    Information about the Property & Casualty Insurance Industry.

Juvenile Firesetting Resources

  • www.sosfires.com
    Youth Intervention Programs
  • Also see websites for the NFPA, USFA, NAPI
    Information on Juvenile Firesetter Intervention Programs.
  • www.theideabank.com
    Download a resource directory on American & Canadian juvenile firesetter programs.
  • www.kidsandfire.com/
    Updated resource material & training notices for juvenile firesetter intervention programs & Strikezone Juvenile Firesetter magazine download.

Fire Investigation Resources (general)

People Locators

Public Records

Individual States Public Records Files (free)

An increasing number of federal, state and municipal governments are putting public records on-line. These can usually be searched for free. Contact your Secretary of State's Office or use an Internet search engine to query (i.e. secretary of state & texas) to locate links into the governmental office that you need.

More Interesting Web Links for Fire Investigators


*with thanks to John Swedo for his contributions to this section.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

 
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