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Writing the Fire Investigation Report


WRITTEN FORMAT FOR PRELIMINARY REPORTS

The following format can be used to construct fire scene investigation reports (when a full narrative is required).

I. Description

  • Date (if different than dispatch date).
  • Time in 24 hour clock time (time that fire investigation unit arrives on scene).
  • Address (corrected when applicable).
  • Fire out or still in progress.
  • Describe physical characteristics of what burned (structure, vehicle identification. wildland). Give dimensions when possible and detailed descriptions.
  • Describe main streets and access to building or property.
  • Describe weather/lightning conditions when applicable.
  • Identify who requested the response (Incident Command, Police Department, citizen, etc.). Give assignment/unit if known.
  • Identify who was dispatched (investigator name and serial number).

II. Observations

  • Describe patterns/factors that substantiate area/point of origin.
  • Localize area/point of origin by using references within structure, vehicle, or wildland.
  • Describe what actually burned (focusing on an area/point of origin)
  • Describe unique factors that may exist (trailers, devices, multiple fires, etc.)
  • Establish fire cause.
    • Accidental
      • Substantiate accidental fire cause by what existed at area/point of origin.
      • Describe problem(s) that may have contributed to the fire.
      • Establish condition of utilities.
      • Eliminate multiple accidental causes, focusing on a single cause when possible.
    • Criminal
      • Establish incendiary cause through physical evidence at scene. (The decision of incendiary cause should be based solely on investigator observations and physical evidence.)
      • Describe in detail, patterns/factors in establishing your incendiary cause.
      • Substantiate multiple fires as being separate and distinct from one another.
      • Establish a negative corpus delicti through methodical elimination of all accidental, natural, and mechanical causes.
    • Additional Factors to Consider
      • Establish security of premises and type of alarm (contact, motion, supervised, etc.).
      • Alarm company information (phone, address).
      • Status of alarm system at time of fire.
      • Ascertain if safety devices were present (smoke detectors, security bars, sprinklers, etc.)
      • List the existence of evidence observed that would tend to substantiate patterns of unique charring.
      • If multiple fires, describe each fire in detail.
      • Attempt to reference single/multiple fire(s) using points of reference within a structure, vehicle, or wildland area.
      • Establish if structure was locked/unlocked.
      • Determine point of entry (and if forcible entry was used).
      • Describe conditions (construction type, weather, etc.) that may have contributed to the fire.
      • Determine if any additional crimes were involved.

III. Statements

  • Obtain witness identification such as driver's license, employee ID card, check-cashing card, etc. (to determine that they are who they say they are).
  • Determine where witness(es) can be located for future interview.
  • Identify where the interview took place.
  • Identify when the interview took place (24-hour clock).
  • Identify how the interview took place (in person/by telephone).
  • Identify witnesses by last name throughout report.
  • Identify witnesses as to their involvement with fire. Use appropriate codes (owner, victim, occupant, witness).
  • Take down witnesses' statements exactly as they were given to you.
  • Make sure questioning is complete and thorough.
  • Suspect Statements:
    • Obtain identification from suspect (if not already known)
    • Identify where the interview/interrogation took place.
    • Identify when the interview/interrogation took place (24-hour clock).
    • Admonish suspects when pertinent, using an approved form (Don't do it by memory!)
    • Use an interpreter when necessary.
    • Write all information completely and thoroughly.
    • Prepare statements carefully and save your notes.
    • Have suspects sign key statements when possible.

IV. Documentation

  • Diagrams
    • Fire scene diagrams should be required in the event of a fatality or a serious burn that could result in death.
    • A diagram may be necessary at a complex or complicated fire scene.
    • A diagram may be necessary at a "high visibility" fire scene (celebrities, press release, ec.)
    • A diagram may be included at the discretion of the investigator or when a supervisor suggests that it would benefit the investigation.
  • Photographs
    • List number of photographs and attach the photographer's log sheet.
  • Evidence
    • List all items of evidence separately on the evidence report. Give location where items were recovered and attach the evidence log.
    • Give physical description of items of evidence.
    • Indicate the items to be analyzed, and where they are sent for analysis, in the evidence report. (Lab analysis reports, if completed, can be attached here).
    • Make your entries in the Evidence Room Log complete.
    • Make entries if any specialized forensic work is to be completed (prints, photos, blood, etc.).

V. Opinion

  • If the fire is considered criminal, a more concise opinion (based upon observations and evidence) and that brings all facts together, should be entered.
  • If an accidental fire, give the reason(s) why you have reached your conclusion.
  • If an undetermined fire, give reason(s) why you have reached your conclusion.
  • If a natural fire, give reason(s) for your conclusion.

VI. Attachments

  • List any information that may not have been appropriate under other headings.
  • List additional work to be completed.
  • List status of case and reasons for that determination.
  • List agencies/persons notified that are associated with your case.
  • Reference reports/records of other agencies and attach copies if appropriate.
  • List prior fire incidents involving the same address/people. Attach copies that are pertinent to your case.


ESSENTIALS OF A GOOD REPORT

A. Reports should answer all questions concerning the incident as well as paint a picture.

B. Reports must be proofread.

1. Grammar

2. Punctuation

3. Spelling

C. The overall quality of the report influences the readers' impression of the investigation; therefore, readers must be able to focus on the facts in the case, not errors in the report.

D. Reports should not be "padded" to increase their length.

1. They need to contain the facts pertinent to the case.

2. Reports should not ramble on, but get to the point.

E. Reports must answer the basic questions about the fire and the investigation--who, what, where, when, why, and how.

1. Who?

a. Discovered the fire.

b. Extinguished the fire.

c. Provided scene security.

d. Has pertinent knowledge.

e. Was the victim.

f. Made the report.

g. Has a motive for the crime.

2. What?

a. Happened.

b. Actions were taken.

c. Was the damage.

d. Was the crime.

e. Do witnesses know.

f. Was done with the evidence.

g. Is the chain of custody of the evidence.

h. Agencies are involved.

3. Where?

a. Did the fire start.

b. Did the fire travel.

c. Was the witness.

d. Were the owners/occupants.

e. Was the evidence collected.

f. Is the evidence stored.

g. Was the crime committed.

4. When?

a. Was the fire first discovered.

b. Was it reported.

c. Was the investigation conducted.

d. Were the interviews conducted.

5. Why?

a. Did the witnesses make statements.

b. Were the witnesses reluctant to talk.

c. Was the crime committed.

6. How?

a. Was the fire discovered.

b. Did the fire start.

c. Was the evidence collected.

d. Was the evidence secured.

e. Did the suspect arrive.

f. Did the suspect leave.


WRITING THE REPORT

A. Preparation is the first step in writing any document.

1. All necessary information must be collected and compiled before the report can be written.

2. Material must be arranged in a systematic order.

3. Material not pertinent to the case should be discarded.

4. The use of an outline assists the investigator in ensuring his/her report is in chronological order.

B. The final investigative report will be read by peers, supervisors, the public, and colleagues.

1. Correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation are essential.

a. Misspelling and improper grammar can give the entire investigation a sloppy appearance.

b. Each document needs to be proofread for completeness and accuracy.

2. Use the first person.

a. "I arrived at the scene..."

b. "I observed..."

3. Avoid second or third person.

a. "This investigator..."

b. "This officer observed..."

4. Determine the target audience and write the report for that audience. Remember, the person reading the report may know nothing about fire investigation.

5. Avoid terminology that only fire investigators understand.

a. If you do use terminology that is known only to experts, then be sure to explain the terms, for example:

- "V patterns." Explain that these patterns point toward the area of origin.

- "Liquid accelerant pour patterns." Explain that you found a pattern which is typical of the use of accelerants.

b. Avoid terminology that cannot be explained.

- It "smelled like Benzene." (This is a hard odor to describe.)

6. Use a writing style that is simple and to the point.

7. Keep your paragraphs short. Long paragraphs tend to turn off most readers.

8. Write the way you talk. Your written communication should reflect your oral communication.

9. Reports should contain only material and information pertinent to the investigation.

10. Personal opinions, conclusions, and suspicions should be eliminated.

11. However, the expert opinion of a qualified investigator based on the evidence found should be included in the report.

12. Reports are statements of fact and observations discovered by the investigator, written in an objective, factual manner.


SAMPLE REPORT

UNKNOWN CITY FIRE DEPARTMENT

CASE NUMBER: #123456

DATE: 4/18/00

Summary of Incident

On April 18, 2000, Investigators Smith and Brown responded to 123 East 1st Street, incident #12, at the request of Chief Jones. The dispatch time was 1200 hours, arrival at the scene was 1230 hours. Investigators observed a wood-frame construction, single-story, one-family residence. The investigation revealed that the fire had originated in the bathroom adjacent to the bathtub. The indicators observed and the evidence taken and analyzed revealed the fire was started by the distribution of a flammable accelerant (gasoline) and ignited by an open flame (lighter). A suspect was identified by two witnesses (W-1 and W-2). The suspect was seen breaking into the house, distributing a liquid, and setting the fire with a lighter. Both witnesses (W-1 and W-2) identified the suspect (S-1) by name and identified him in a photo lineup. The motive for the fire was spite/revenge. The suspect (S-1) had been evicted on April 17, 2000.

Laboratory Analysis

Taken into evidence was a gasoline can, lighter, and crow bar. Fingerprints were taken from all three exhibits and identified the suspect (S-1) as the person handling each item. Furthermore, a gas station manager (W-3) identified the suspect (S-1) filling a container similar to the one taken into evidence. Laboratory analysis revealed that the flammable liquid was gasoline and had the same octane rating as described by the gas station manager (W-3).

Witnesses

W-1 John A. Smith, 345 E. 2nd St. Fun City, MA 00000, 300/111-2222. DOB 1-1-11, Occupation - Lawyer.

W-2 John A. Doe, 444 E. 3rd St. Sun City, MA 0000, 300/222-3333. DOB 2-2-22, Occupation - Doctor

W-3 James A. Smith, 555 W. 4th St. Moon City, MA 00000, 300/444-5555, DOB 3-3-33, Occupation - Gas station manager

Statements Made by Witnesses

Witnesses 1 and 2 both identified suspect entering house, distributing liquid, and setting the fire.

Witness 3 can identify the suspect purchasing and filling container with regular gasoline, octane rating of 87.

Statement Made by Suspect

No statement made, suspect taken into custody and Miranda warning given immediately on April 19, 2000 at 1200 hours.

Statutes Violated

MA Penal Code 111222: Deliberately setting fire to a dwelling of another. Bail/Fine $5,000.
MA Penal Code 1234: Unlawful entry - burglary. Bail/Fine $5,000
MA Penal Code 45678: Distribution of a flammable liquid in setting an incendiary fire. Bail/Fine $10,000.
  Total Bail/Fine $18,500

The Unknown Fire Department doesn't recommend the suspect be released. (O.R. Release)

Reprinted with permission from Management for Arson Prevention and Control.

 
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