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Large Loss Fire Investigation and Management

By Robert B. Whitemore, Senior Fire Consultant

excerpted from "Motive, Means, and Opportunity, A Guide to Fire Investigation."
American Re-Insurance Company, Claims Division, 1996.


Table of Contents


Introduction

Throughout the years in both the United States and Canada, there have been many major incidents involving fire that have caused countless deaths and injuries along with property losses in the mil-lions of dollars. As we all have become increasingly aware, the complexity of the investigations involved in assessing and determining all of the issues surrounding a major fire loss have increased throughout the years. Technology has also increased so that today different management and case file handling strategies can be utilized to more effectively and efficiently handle the investigations of large fire losses.

To effectively and efficiently handle these types of losses, it is critical to the entire investigation process to develop specific approaches to the handling of these types of losses so that the sheer magnitude of the investigation and the information derived from that investigation does not become unmanageable. This particular document will provide you with some perspective as to han-dling large fire losses from an investigative perspective that can be applied to both the public and private sectors of the fire investigation field. This approach also provides substantial benefits partic-ularly in the insurance/legal arena in providing a format for better managing large losses when they occur.

Overview

In the investigation of any fire loss, whether it be large or small, it is beneficial to develop a strategy that an investigator can employ for the effective and efficient handling of the fire investigation. Oftentimes, the smaller the loss the less complex the investigation is. However, as the size of the fire loss escalates, in many cases the complexity in handling those cases becomes increasingly difficult. This particular article will provide you a general overview of handling the more complex fire cases, the majority of which end up in some type of litigation. It is critical that a strategic plan be employed so that the investigation of the fire can be methodically achieved with a minimum of difficulties.

Some of the primary issues that will aid in the handling and investigation of large fire losses are:

  • Assessing the magnitude of the loss
  • Determining your investigative needs
  • Establishing an investigation action plan
  • Utilization of expert resources
  • Interfacing with public officials
  • Managing the investigative team

Assessing the Magnitude of the Loss

At the very early stages of your involvement in the investigation of a major fire incident, it is important to learn the magnitude of the loss as early as possible. This will assist you in formulating your strategic plan that you will employ throughout the remainder of the investigation. You should make every effort within the first few hours of receiving notification of the loss to gather as much information as possible from a wide variety of sources to assist you in establishing the overall size and complexity of the investigation. Sources of information that can be of assistance may consist of the following:

  • Type of building structure involved
  • Size and dimensions of structure
  • Occupancy type
  • Fatality/injuries
  • Relationship of your client to the loss
  • Insurance coverage (building/personal/liability)
  • Potential exposure/loss for your particular client
  • Other insurance carriers involved with the property
  • Types of coverages afforded by other insurance carriers
  • Information on the tenants in the building (if any)
  • Relationship of tenant(s) to the alleged area where the fire originated
  • Business contact for each of the tenant(s) within the building structure
  • Insurance company adjusters
  • Public officials (fire/law enforcement)
  • Newspapers
  • Radio

All of the aforementioned items can assist you in assessing the magnitude of the loss which is critical in terms of determining the type of response that will be necessary to conduct this investigation. While much of the information is often sketchy within the first few hours of the loss, many of the sources will have sufficient information to provide a general understanding of the steps you will need to take. As time progresses the information becomes much clearer and the relationship between your interests and any of the other interests involved in the matter will also become clearer. The information provided after you first receive notification of the loss will dictate the requirements necessary for you to respond with sufficient resources to investigate the loss.

Determining Your Investigative Needs

As discussed previously, the most critical aspects during the initial stages of the investigation of a major fire loss is attempting to understand the magnitude of the loss and the relationship that it has to the entity that you are representing.

Depending on the circumstances, in some cases you may be called to become part of a team investigating the circumstances surrounding a major fire loss. In other circumstances, you may be requested to conduct an investigation at some point after the initial investigation has been conducted or completed. The two ends of the spectrum that I have just discussed, obviously affect the response that you will be required to make in determining your investigative needs. At one end of the spectrum you may be requested on behalf of the owner of a building to fully investigate all the issues surrounding a particular fire. The size and complexity of that type of investigation is extremely labor-intensive and the requirements for a vast array of expertise is often necessary. Conversely, you may be retained by a company that had a particular product within that building and you may not be notified until some months after the fire. Your response to this type of large loss is obviously quite different than the previous scenario described. Typically, in the latter scenario, you may have a narrowly defined area of expertise that will be required to assist in analyzing the fire. However, with the first scenario, the response may require a vast array of investigators/ engineers/experts to analyze all of the aspects of the building and the relationship of the fire to the systems within the building.

It is also imperative, upon receipt of notification of the loss, to establish and determine as many issues that may be involved in the investigation as possible. This will assist in determining the type of expertise required to assess the large loss fire. Each fire is unique because of the different types of structure, construction, mechanical system, HVAC, electrical and other issues, which dictate the expertise that may be required. This is all part of determining your investigative needs early, so you have the ability to effectively staff and manage the investigation.

Other issues that often are overlooked during the initial stages of the investigation are:

Transportation: Transportation to and from loss site.

Food Service: Arrangements must be made for food service for the investigation team throughout the duration of the investigation.

Lodging: Lodging must be arranged for all of the members of the investigation team. It is advantageous for all members to stay at the same motel/hotel, preferably all on the same floor.

Equipment: Determine equipment requirements for the members of the investigation team. This would consist of items such as cameras, flashes, saws, hammers, shovels, miscellaneous hand tools, evidence tags, evidence containers, drafting equipment, etc.

Heavy Equipment: Heavy equipment needs also have to be assessed during the determination stage of investigation needs. This may include items such as large hand tools, front-end loaders, cranes, etc. that may be necessary to reach the area of origin. This is further dictated by the physical aspects of the building and the location of the fire. Obviously, the difference in the equipment requirements may vary from a one-story commercial manufacturing warehouse to a 60-story high-rise office building.

Sanitary Facilities: Sanitary facilities need to be addressed during the initial stages so that all of the necessary equipment can be made available for the investigation team. This is also contingent upon the size and duration of loss. It may also be necessary, due to environmental considerations, to establish a decontamination zone if the investigation team is required to wear protective equipment.

Establishing an Investigation Action Plan

As soon as you receive notification that you will be involved in a major loss investigation, you should attempt to establish a plan to conduct the investigation. By formulating a plan of action you can methodically assess and document the needs of your team prior to commencing the investigation. This plan can be as simple as writing a few thoughts down or as complex as developing a flow chart and timeline to visualize the progression of the investigation. This process allows you to determine if the investigation is progressing in a timely and orderly fashion. Some of the timeline considerations may be predicated upon time sensitive issues such as limited access to the building as a result of multi-party litigation, court ordered restraints limiting access to the building, environmental considerations and even weather conditions. There may be other factors that influence the timeliness of your ability to initiate and complete your investigation.

Initially the primary focus should be your attempt to not only secure the facility but also arrange for access to the facility. Security will be needed to restrain onlookers from entering your investigation site. The security should be placed at the facility at the conclusion or in cooperation with the public authorities that are involved in the investigation. A security company should be engaged for main-taining 24-hour security at the loss site until the investigation is complete. Efforts should be made to establish a system of identification for members of the primary investigation team, other investigation teams, tenants, insurance company representatives, public officials, etc. A written protocol on establishing issues involving security can be beneficial to all parties. The security protocol would allow a managed and systematic access to the facility based upon the status of the investigation, structural stability, and health and environmental concerns. All tenants and/or other interested parties, other than the investigation team(s), should be provided guards to escort them through the facility. A means of documenting people gaining access to the site should also be incorporated into the security protocol along with photo identification badges to ensure only authorized personnel enter the site. Once the security of the scene has been established means to assess factors relating to the structure itself must be established. One of the primary issues is to determine if there is an environmental or air quality issue that must be addressed prior to the commencement of the investigation. It may be necessary to retain expertise to monitor the air quality and determine if any special environ-mental protection measures are needed. The individual assigned to air quality assessment can also determine the level of environmental protection required, such as a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). Along with this assessment, a determination can be made whether to employ the HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning system) if operable. This may assist in resolving some of the issues with respect to air quality.

To further establish the environment in which the investigation will be conducted, it may be necessary to appoint a monitoring team whose primary purpose will be to monitor the air quality. If multiple parties are involved, this can be a joint effort on behalf of all parties to ensure the quality of the air where the investigation will be conducted. All parties can be involved in the development of a protocol that will outline what the requirements will be for the investigation. This can range any-where from no personal protection requirements to full protective equipment including SCBA requirements.

Another issue that is important during the initial stages as you develop your investigation action plan, is to have a structural assessment made, if necessary, to determine the structural integrity of the building. Shoring or other structural stabilization measures may be necessary before the investigation team would be able to enter a particular site. A structural engineer can be extremely important in assessing the stability and integrity of the building after the fire.

As you determine your action plan you will need to assess the lighting needs for the investigation. This can range from portable lights powered by a generator to a temporary power installation off of which different means of lighting can be established. Installation of a temporary power source can also be beneficial if electrical equipment has to be utilized.

As part of the initial phase of the investigation, separate and apart from the determination of the origin and cause of the fire, it is often necessary to gather as much factual information relative to the fire as quickly as possible. One of the first issues that need to be addressed is determining the identification of tenants and/or parties involved in the fire and establishing a line of communication with those individuals. The tenants/parties can be an enormous source of information in the determination of the origin and cause of the fire.

It may also become necessary for you to establish a protocol that allows tenants to return to the loss site on a very controlled basis. Obviously you do not want people gaining access to the building and becoming injured in a potentially unsafe fire-damaged building. However, the tenants/parties involved may have business records, personal belongings, financial documents, etc. that are critical to the continuation of their business.

Depending on the specific tenant(s) and the tenant(s') location to the area of origin, it may become necessary to identify as much storage/content information about the area as possible. The storage or content information relating to a particular tenant or party in a large loss investigation can provide invaluable information. This information will assist you in assessing generally the fire load within a given area and the relationship of that fire load to the origin, cause and spread of the fire. The con-tent information can also assist you in determining any potential ignition sources that may be identified within the area of origin. The storage/content information can be general with respect to the various tenants or occupants within the building, but also needs to be specific with respect to the area identified as the area of origin.

It is also advantageous to obtain blueprints and any other documents relating to the building as soon as possible. This should include as many of the "as built-in" blueprints as possible. If necessary, you may obtain the blueprints from the architect, builder, building maintenance, etc.

A concrete effort should also be made to locate and identify all documents and records relating to the building. A portion of your investigation team can be assigned to this aspect of the investigation to obtain a historic perspective of the building prior to the fire. This information can be obtained from some of the following sources:

  • Building Department
  • Fire Department
  • Fire Prevention Bureau
  • Recorder of the Deeds
  • Assessor's Office
  • Surveyor's Office
  • County Court
  • District Court
  • Federal Court
  • UCC Filings
  • City Council Records
  • Newspapers

As you are establishing your investigation action plan, be sure you have assigned specific members of the investigation team to conduct interviews. The interviews would consist of representatives of the police department and/or law enforcement, fire department, tenants or parties within the building, witnesses external to the building and witnesses internal to the building. Witnesses that I have identified as external to the building would be those that have no interest within the building. The individuals may be merely passersby or had some specific knowledge relating to the fire that needs to be documented by the investigation team. Those witnesses internal to the structure would be anyone that had a specific interest within the building such as building owners, tenants, security personnel, maintenance personnel, etc. Critical to both the interview and the document search process is the matter of timely investigation, in particular, the obtaining of documents within a municipality once a major incident happens. The sooner your investigation team begins to locate and identify all documents, records, permits, codes, witnesses, etc., the better information you will be able to gather for the initial stages of the investigation. Some of this information can be paramount to your early assessment of the overall investigation.

After a major incident, some of the records and documents that you desire may be detained by public officials and not available until authorized by representatives of the law enforcement/fire department. Therefore, if the members of your investigation team begin searching for the records and identifying witnesses within the first 48 to 72 hours post-fire, then you stand a good chance of gathering substantial information before the records/witnesses may become unavailable. Members of the media often try to access such documents and it can be a "race to the courthouse" to obtain them.

Another aspect of obtaining documents and assigning team members to conduct interviews is to locate all of the applicable building and fire codes relative to the structure. These codes should be those that were enforced both at the time that the structure was constructed, the codes that were relevant as a result of any renovation work done to the building during its history and the codes that would have been in effect at the time that the fire occurred. The various codes play a major role in both the investigation and litigation of a major fire loss. All the information that has been provided in this section of establishing an investigation action plan are items that can be addressed pre-site investigation. The next stage of the investigation can run concurrently with some of the aforementioned items that have been discussed including documenting areas external to the area of origin, documentation of the area of origin, the determination of the cause of the fire, the determination of the expert assistance required for you to conduct your investigation, evidentiary issues and debris removal issues. Many of these areas will be commented on later in this article.

Utilization of Expert Resources

The magnitude of the loss often dictates the different types of expertise that may be required to assist in conducting a large loss investigation. As is critical with the handling of any case such as this, it is paramount that an individual be assigned to manage the overall aspects of the investigation. This individual will be responsible for the day-to-day activities relating to the site investigation. All other investigative assignments outside the general scope of the actual site investigation also report to the individual assigned to manage the investigation so that all information can be coordinated through one individual.

This section provides insight into the different areas of expertise that may be required during the course of any large loss investigation. It is a case-by-case issue as to the necessary expertise that will be required to investigate a large fire loss. It is also dependent upon the role your client may play in the building, i.e., building owner, tenant, product manufacturer, etc. I have identified the various experts that may be beneficial in conducting a large loss investigation and what role they would play in the overall assessment of the loss. The specific area of expertise and their assigned responsibilities would consist of the following

Origin and Cause Investigator:

  • Assigned to determine area of origin
  • Assigned to determine point of origin
  • Determines potential cause of the fire
  • Eliminates other potential causes of the fire
  • Photographs/video tapes/diagrams
  • Identifies evidence/retention of evidence
  • Conducts interviews
  • Obtains samples for laboratory testing

Electrical Engineer:

  • Assesses primary service to the building
  • Assesses secondary service in the building
  • Assesses service entrance(s) and panel board(s)
  • Analyzes fire damaged electrical equipment
  • Conducts assessment of emergency (standby power)
  • Analyzes other miscellaneous electrical equipment as needed
  • Analyzes any emergency transfer switches to determine their function and operation
  • Conducts circuit analysis as required
  • Eliminates/identifies electrical ignition sources
  • Determines compliance of: NFPA 70 (NFPA 70 - National Electrical Code/National Electrical Safety Code)
  • Calculates specific loads of circuits, equipment, etc.
  • Assesses electrical requirements for emergency fire alarm systems

Mechanical Engineer:

  • Assesses mechanical equipment in building
  • Determines mechanical equipment involved in area of origin
  • Eliminates/identifies mechanical equipment in area of origin

HVAC Engineer:

  • Assesses heating systems within structure
  • Assesses ventilation systems within structure
  • Determines if fire detection/HVAC shutdown interface functioned properly
  • Determines HVAC involvement in fire/smoke spread
  • Determines HVAC involvement in ignition scenario
  • Determines code compliance:
    • NFPA 30 - Flammable and Combustible Liquids Code
    • NFPA 31 - Standards for the installation of oil burning equipment
    • NFPA 54 - National Fuel Gas Code
    • NFPA 58 - Standard for the storage and handling of LP gas
    • NFPA 86A - Standard for ovens and furnaces
    • NFPA 86B - Standard for industrial furnaces
    • NFPA 86C - Standard for industrial furnaces using a special processing atmosphere
    • NFPA 89M - Manual on clearances for heat producing appliances
    • NFPA 90A - Standard for the installation of air conditioning and ventilating systems
    • NFPA 90B - Standard for the installation of resident type warm air heating and air conditioning systems
    • NFPA 255 - Standard for chimneys, fireplaces and vents

Laboratory Technician:

  • Conducts laboratory analysis of fire debris samples: v Gas chromatography v Mass spectroscopy
  • Conducts specialized test procedures

Toxicologist:

  • Obtains samples of materials to test for products of combustion
  • Identifies products of combustion produced during fire
  • Determines relationship between material pyrolyzed and products of combustion produced
  • Determines effects products of combustion had on fatalities/injuries
  • Determines effect products of combustion had on equipment

Fire Protection Engineer:

  • Assesses public fire protection systems
  • Assesses sprinkler systems
  • Assesses standpipe systems
  • Assesses fire detection systems
  • Assesses fire alarm systems
  • Assesses special fire extinguishing systems
  • Determines code compliance:
    • NFPA 13 - Standard for the installation of sprinkler systems
    • NFPA 14 - Standard for the installation of standpipe and hose systems
    • NFPA 20 - Standard for the installation of centrifugal fire pumps
    • NFPA 71 - Standard for the installation, maintenance and use of central stations signaling systems
    • NFPA 72A - Standards for the installation, maintenance and use of local protective signaling systems
    • NFPA 72B - Standard for the installation, maintenance and use of auxiliary protective signaling systems
    • NFPA 72C - Standard for the installation, maintenance and use of remote station protective signaling systems
    • NFPA 72D - Standard for the installation, maintenance and use of proprietary protective signaling systems
    • NFPA 80 - Standard for fire doors and windows
    • NFPA 204 - Guide for smoke and heat venting

Interior Finish/Fire Spread Expert:

  • Assesses composition of interior finish materials
  • Determines fuel load characteristics and interior finish
  • Determines fuel load characteristics of content material internal/external to area of origin
  • Determines rate of heat release (kw) of material
  • Determines fire spread based upon material/interior finish
  • Assess building construction and determines factors that may influence fire spread
  • Determines if interior finish played factor in abnormal fire spread provides ability to conduct small scale tests of specific materials (ASTM 84/NFPA/UL723 - Steiner tunnel test) has the ability to conduct larger full scale fire tests (room or corner tests)

Computer Modeling/Animation Expert:

  • Develops data on various characteristics of the fire
  • Assists in providing variables in assessing the factors relating to fire propagation, smoke propagation, rate of heat release, time/temperature curves, etc.
  • Provides different variables dependent upon fuel load geometric configuration, ignition scenarios, ventilation's factors, etc.
  • Provides graphs/printout of data produced by computer
  • Provides animation of fire ignition/propagation based upon computer modeling data and expert witness testimony

Security Expert:

  • Assesses security procedures of a building/structure
  • Determines appropriate security needs for property
  • Determines if the security services were performed according to the contractual relationship with property
  • Assesses role of security service in preventing, detecting and reporting fires within building/structure
  • Assesses compliance of codes: v NFPA 601 - Recommendations for guard service and fire loss prevention v NFPA 602 - Standard for guard operations in fire loss prevention

Elevator Expert:

  • Assesses equipment and includes/excludes as potential cause
  • Determines if elevator recalls performed properly
  • Determines if fire department bypass operated properly
  • Determines role elevators played in contributing to deaths/injuries
  • Determines role elevators had in assisting/hindering fire suppression activities
  • Determines role elevators/shafts played in vertical fire protection

Pathologist:

  • Assists civil/criminal investigations in establishing circumstances surrounding fire deaths
  • Conducts post-mortem examinations
  • Identifies contributing factors leading to cause of death

Profiling Expert:

  • Analyzes data relating to incident plus any additional data of similar incidents
  • Works with investigation team in targeting properties that may be susceptible to serial arsonists
  • Works with investigation team in providing profile of individual(s) that fits into pattern of conduct

Chemical Engineer:

  • Assists in analyzing chemical(s) involved in particular incident
  • Determines if a combination of chemicals are capable of causing fire
  • Develops protocols for testing procedures
  • Provides spectrum of tests to assist in formulating/refining theories regarding involvement of chemicals and ignition scenario

Structural Engineer:

  • Determines structural integrity post-fire
  • Assists in structural stabilization plan post-fire
  • Works with investigation team to assess/stabilize area where investigation to be conducted
  • Assists investigation team in developing and implementation of debris removal protocol
  • Assists in total structural assessment - post-investigation to determine salvage ability of building and necessary renovation plans

Metallurgical:

  • Analyze electrical conductors
  • Analyze various metals to establish temperature curves
  • Fracture/failure analysis

Environmental Engineer:

  • Assists in assessing air quality post-fire
  • Determines physical requirements/tests of investigators -pre-investigation (to establish base line studies)
  • Determines protective equipment requirements
  • Constantly monitors air quality during investigation
  • Conducts tests of air samples during investigation monitoring process

Cooling Systems' Expert:

  • Determines compliance of building code:
    • Uniform Building Code
    • Building Officials and Code Administration International
    • Southern Building Code Congress
    • American Insurance Association
  • Determines compliance of fire code:
    • AIA Fire Prevention Code
    • Uniform Fire Code
    • BOCA Basic Fire Prevention Code
    • Southern Standard Fire Prevention Code
    • NFPA Fire Prevention Code
  • Determines compliance of other codes and standards:
    • American National Standard Institute
    • American Society of Testing and Materials
    • Mechanical Codes
    • Plumbing Codes
    • Electrical Codes

Interfacing with Public Officials

Dependent upon the location, a particular large fire loss may dictate the public involvement in a loss of great magnitude. The complexity of the investigation along with available resources of a particular local, state or federal entity may be limited, which may necessitate the involvement of outside expertise hired by those individuals with an interest in the building. In some cases, public officials will retain the scene until the completion of their investigation, at which time they turn the site over to the building owner and/or their representatives. In other cases, public officials may not have the equipment or expertise to conduct large-scale fire investigations and therefore rely heavily upon experts retained by interested parties to assist in conducting the investigation.

This assistance can range anywhere from the use of the different types of experts that were identified previously to the offer of special equipment, tools, testing facilities, laboratories, etc. Every effort should be made to cooperate with the authorities to the fullest extent possible. Within the United States there are certain laws that specifically address the cooperative agreement between public officials and insurance companies that are called arson immunity laws. This allows the cooperative agreement between investigative agencies and insurance companies. The majority of the states have some type of arson immunity legislation that allows for the exchange of information and cooperation in investigations involving suspicious or incendiary fires.

Managing the Investigation Team

As indicated previously, it is imperative to the overall assessment and investigation of a major fire loss to assign someone to coordinate all of the activities of the investigation team. As you can appreciate from what has already been discussed, there is a considerable amount of information and logistical management merely in handling the investigative aspects of a large fire loss. The per-son assigned to this task should have a general understanding of the management of large fire losses and have the logistical management expertise in methodically managing the overall investigation.

In managing the investigation team, at a very early stage you need to assess all of the requirements that have been outlined and put them in place to effectively manage the loss site. This is particularly important with respect to experts. If you arbitrarily engage numerous experts of various disciplines to become involved in the investigation and then do not have a plan for the most productive use of their time, then you are wasting the time and financial resources of your client. Case in point, while conducting the origin and cause investigation it makes little sense to have a chemical engineer on site participating in the investigation until such time that you determine if a chemical engineer is required and/or you identify specific chemicals that may be involved in either the ignition and/or propagation of the fire.

All investigation activities should be coordinated through the individual assigned to mange the investigation. Team assignments should be made by the managing investigator so that he or she can staff the various aspects of the investigation as needed. The managing investigator can also pro-vide the logistical management of "staging" experts in and out of the structure so that they can operate on a cost-effective basis as part of the investigation team.

To achieve the maximum amount of information and document it accordingly, it is imperative that the investigation team meets on a daily basis to fully understand the direction of the investigation. We typically conduct morning breakfast meetings to have the day's assignments delegated to the different investigators/experts. This provides a clear, concise direction of the investigation team on a daily basis which is managed through the managing investigator. We also have nightly debriefings where each member of the investigative team would report the progress of their assigned task(s) for the given day. Each investigator is responsible for his/her own dictation/documentation of notes relative to their investigative activities. This would also include documentation such as photographs, video and scene schematics. During the daily debriefing sessions in the evening each investigator relates to the managing investigator all the pertinent aspects of the investigation activities that day. The managing investigator then documents a synopsis of activities for the given day and logs it accordingly.

The morning briefing and evening debriefing sessions can be more effective through the utilization of computer systems, in particular laptop computers that can keep track of the logistical management of the investigation team. The information provided to the managing investigator on a daily basis can be incorporated into a computer data base and retrieved in any format. This process of handling information can also assist you in reporting to your clients and/or the lawyers involved in the case. Typically once the daily debriefing session was concluded, if our clients/attorneys were not involved in the daily debriefing sessions, then they would be briefed either later that evening or the following morning.

In handling major fire loss litigation, it is often advantageous to computerize the documents that are obtained during the course of the investigation. This allows the opportunity to effectively track all the documents that are obtained during the early stages in the investigation that may be voluminous. Documents such as blueprints, building records, fire records, inspection reports, witness statements, etc., can all be categorized and classified in a computer data base, which aids in accessibility. This service can be produced in-house, if your company/firm has that capability or it can be contracted out.

Evidence and Debris Removal

Two issues that interrelate with the conducting of the origin and cause investigation and are intimately tied to that process include the identification and retention of evidence and the subsequent removal of debris from the investigation site.

Specifically outlining the debris removal process is done because this issue may cause extreme problems in the overall investigation operation. Many times with multiple party litigation there is considerable dialogue regarding the actual process of how the debris is to be removed and disposed of. It is advantageous at the early stages to try and agree, by a consensus of the parties, as to how the site will be excavated and the debris removed. If the debris does not have environmental contamination, then it can be disposed according to the jurisdiction where the fire occurred. If in fact there are environmental issues involved, then it may require special handling before it can be disposed of in an appropriate way. Again, the management investigator will need to work with companies that can provide the specific equipment needs for debris removal.

In some cases it may be necessary to develop a protocol or "memorandum of understanding" that documents and addresses not only debris removal, but the investigation process as a whole. This has been utilized very effectively in the past in many other large scale investigations where all par-ties basically arrive at an understanding that is categorized as a "memorandum of understanding." This document sets forth all of the parties' issues with respects to how the investigation will be con-ducted.

The second item that is separately addressed under this section is the handling of the evidentiary issues relating to a particular large loss fire. Without question this can be the most important aspect of the entire investigation which relates to the identification, tagging, photographs/video taping and persevering the evidence for future examinations. The process of identifying, tagging, photographing, video taping and preserving the evidence is not altogether complicated. What does complicate matters is if you have multiple parties that are involved with their teams tagging different pieces of evidence. There needs to be a standardized tagging and identification process so that all the evidence and the parties that tag the evidence can be recorded properly. Once all evidence has been identified, tagged, and photographed, (this should be done while all the evidence is still in place prior to removal from the building) and all parties examine all of the tagged evidence, then a systematic process of removing it from the site can be employed.

Before the evidence is totally removed from its previous location, steps need to be taken in order to identify locations where the evidence can be effectively stored. Warehouses or mini storage facilities can be obtained on a cost-sharing basis with all parties involved in the investigation so that the evidence is stored in a controlled environment. Multiple locks can be employed so that it takes more than one party to achieve access to a specific warehouse/mini storage facility. This provides the security necessary to ensure the condition of the evidence until all parties can be present to examine the evidence in a systematic manner.

Depending upon the parties involved in the investigation, it may become necessary to establish a protocol for the future examination of the evidence. This has been done in many cases that we have become involved and it formalizes the actual process of the examination and dissection of the evidence. This is important if in fact the evidence is going to be altered form the condition that it was found at the time of the investigation. If in fact a product has been identified that may be related to causation and/or any of the damages incurred as a result of the fire, it is suggested that the legal representatives of your party consider the notification of the company that manufactured the aforementioned product before any of the evidence is significantly altered.

Synopsis

If in fact you were called upon to become involved in a significant fire loss that is considered a "large loss," (because of the number of injuries, fatalities, number of buildings, size of building, etc.,) then hopefully this document will provide some direction on how to effectively manage a large fire investigation.

As illustrated at the beginning of this paper, it is extremely important to act within the initial hours after notification of the loss to quickly and effectively assess its magnitude and decide what is required to effectively conduct the investigation.


This was excerpted from a presentation by Robert B. Whitemore, a Senior Fire Consultant with Ward & Whitemore Universal Fire Consultants, P.O. Box 475, Prior Lake, MN 55372. It is used with his permission. Inclusion of this material in Motive, Means and Opportunity does not constitute a warranty of its accuracy, completeness or applicability to any particular circumstances.

Reprinted with permission.

 
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