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Before Releasing the Scene: A Checklist

Cathleen Corbitt

During the investigative process, there are five logical points for the investigator to take a time out and mentally review the activities completed to date. This pause allows the investigator to ensure that nothing has been forgotten and that the plan is in place to proceed to the next step. The logical "time out for review" points are:

  • Prior to responding to the call
  • After the preliminary scene assessment, but before the scene is processed
  • After the scene is processed and before releasing it back to the owner
  • After the follow-up investigation has been completed
  • Before trial

InterFIRE VR includes very detailed information on all the steps in this process that should be reviewed by the investigator. To distill these steps into a handy "checklist" format will assist the investigator in "self-checking" actions at the logical review points described above.

This checklist will assist the investigator in evaluating the full scene investigation. Affirmative answers to the questions on this checklist will ensure that the scene has been fully investigated before it is released. Every scene is different, and your professional judgment determines how the investigation should be conducted. These guidelines are intended only as a "self-check" and the investigator should modify them as required. Please refer to the Before the Fire and Preliminary Scene Assessment checklists for actions that should have been taken prior to this point.

Scene Investigation

Have fatalities been handled?

Injured victims should have been removed previously, as described in the Preliminary Scene Assessment checklist. Fatalities must be thoroughly documented and investigated. The body should be secured and not disturbed until the medical examiner arrives. Before the body is touched, it should be thoroughly photographed in place. Then, in concert with the medical examiner, document the body position, injuries, evidence, and other items as directed. The medical examiner will provide information on the victim's physical relationship, his or her possible relationship to the fire, and probable cause of death. After the body has been removed, consider being present at the autopsy. Any evidence recovered from the body should be preserved for collection. Meet with the medical examiner to discuss the autopsy and how its results inform the investigation.

Has the fire flow been analyzed and the scene fully examined?

On the exterior, document and examine construction, utilities, venting, and burn patterns. Trace the fire flow back to the area of origin through burn patterns, smoke damage, and physical evidence. Determine if there was forcible entry or other indicators of a crime. All evidence that may point to an incendiary fire, such as trailers, burn patterns, accelerant pools, discarded containers, and excessive fuel load should be investigated and explained.

If necessary, has the scene been reconstructed?

At some scenes, the suppression of the fire or the damage of resulting from a collapse may have changed the area of origin from its pre-fire condition. This may require that reconstruction take place to restore the room's configuration to pre-fire condition. Document the scene "as is" first and then complete fire flow analysis and evidence collection. Then, remove debris layers and repeat the process. Once all debris has been removed, use protected areas and furniture shape to place contents where they were at the time of the fire. Firefighters and occupants can also assist in showing where items were located before they were moved. Also, family or insurance pictures or video may be available. Once the contents have been restored to their pre-fire location, examine the scene again and analyze the fire origin, cause, and flow.

Have all reasonable accidental causes been examined and eliminated or a single accidental cause determined to be the fire's cause?

All reasonable accidental causes must be examined and either ruled out or determined to be the cause. Ask yourself if the system or item could have caused the fire. If so, how? If no, why not? Determine if the potential accidental cause is in the area of origin, if sufficient fuel load existed for ignition, and what event occurred to spark that ignition.
Look for indications of ignition, such as spark pattern or burn pattern emanating from an electrical outlet. Photograph all accidental causes you examine and the conditions that led you to rule it out or determine it to be the cause. Do not go beyond your expertise in making a determination. If necessary, call in an expert.

If appropriate, has the AK-9 unit or other canine unit(s) been utilized?

Accelerant detection canines can identify accelerant evidence, search suspects and their belongings for traces of accelerant, and screen evidence collection materials. Remember that all accelerant detection canine hits must be sampled and verified by the laboratory. Other types of canines, including explosives, cadaver, and rescue should also be tapped as required.

Has the origin been identified?

Possible areas of origin should have been marked off during the preliminary scene assessment. The scene investigation should conclusively determine the area or areas of origin. Relate this origin determination to the cause. Remember that the area of origin may not always been near the cause. An example of this is an explosion where gas fumes have collected. This may not happen in close proximity to the source of the gas.

Has a cause determination been made?

Four possible cause determinations are suggested in interFIRE VR:

  • accidental (direct result of accident, unintentional act, or failure of an appliance or system)
  • incendiary (direct human involvement)
  • undetermined (not able to gather sufficient data or evidence to enable identification of a specific cause)
  • natural (result of an act of nature)

The undetermined cause should only be used in rare circumstances where all accidental causes have been ruled out, but the investigator has not found evidence of an incendiary fire. Natural cause determinations must be verified by data such as lightning strike records and the chain of events must be determined. Accidental cause should be specifically determined at the scene by identifying the item or system and constructing the ignition scenario. Incendiary cause determinations should be supported by the evidence at the scene. If you have reached an incendiary conclusion, further investigation is necessary to determine intent.

The cause determination should include:

Make sure the entire scenario has been played out and thoroughly investigated

  • identity of the ignition source and form of ignition
  • what event caused the ignition
  • how contact was made with fuel load

Has all evidence been collected and submitted for testing?

Evidence that may be collected includes:

  • bodily fluids
  • cigarettes
  • explosives
  • fabrics and textiles
  • fiber
  • fingerprints
  • fire debris
  • firearms
  • food, drug, and plant
  • glass
  • hair
  • impressions (shoe, tire, toolmark)
  • ink
  • liquids
  • metals
  • paint
  • plastics, adhesives, tar, grease, and oil
  • documents, paper, and cardboard
  • soil
  • tape
  • wood
  • victims

All evidence should be properly packaged and stored for transport prior to closing the scene investigation. Evidence labels and logs should be completed and cross-checked. The chain of custody must be maintained as the evidence is transmitted to the lab. Remember to properly specify tests and enumerate exhibits in the evidence transmittal letter.

Has all photographic and schematic documentation been completed?

Take all desired photographs before leaving the scene. General categories of photographs include:

  • aerial view
  • physical hazards
  • fire damage
  • exterior
  • possible ignition sources and accidental causes
  • items of evidence
  • cause

If excavation and/or reconstruction are necessary, photographs can be taken layer by layer.

Complete all measurements and a rough scene diagram. This diagram should include:

  • all major features of the location
  • dimensions of rooms
  • locations of contents such as furniture and equipment locations
  • locations of all collected evidence as measured from two fixed sources
  • all window and door conditions
  • locations of victims
  • where witnesses were standing

Has the floor been washed?

At many scenes, after everything else has been completed, it may be beneficial to remove all contents and wash the floor. Cut a drainage hole away from the burn patterns and wash the floor with a gentle stream of running water. Then, reexamine the burn patterns for additional information.


Has consent for an interview been secured from all witnesses?

Consent can be oral or written; work within the department's guidelines, district attorney's advice, and your professional judgment. Be sure to handle special case witnesses, like juveniles or the mentally challenged, according to your state's regulations. Make sure that Miranda cards have been properly signed.

Have all witnesses at this location been interviewed?

Although there will be time during the follow-up investigation to interview witnesses, it is usually best to interview as many as possible at the scene or very close to the time of the incident, when memories are the freshest. Seek out the following types of witnesses:

  • Victims
  • Owner(s)
  • Tenant(s)
  • Occupant(s)
  • Those with direct knowledge of the fire and the area of the fire
  • Those with direct knowledge of the behaviors and habits of people involved in the fire and/or affected by the fire
  • Crowd members and passersby
  • Passerby rescuers
  • Delivery persons
  • Neighbors
  • Suspect(s)

Have the owner(s), tenant(s), and all others with a financial interest been interviewed?

Although some of these persons may be interviewed during the follow-up investigation, it is often most helpful to interview them early because they provide crucial information about the property and the people connected to it. The interview should cover:

  • Actions the day of the fire
  • Direct observations of the fire
  • Key issues about the property
  • Insurance coverage
  • Finances
  • Disputes with others
  • Business dealings
  • Family situations

Have all interviews been documented?

The choice of documentation should be determined by the investigator, department, and/or district attorney in accordance with state law. These are the accepted forms of documentation, in ascending order of persuasiveness at trial:

  • Investigator notes only (least persuasive at trial)
  • Written, but unsigned statement
  • Written and signed statement
  • Audio or videotaped statement (most persuasive at trial)

When deciding among these options, follow state law and department policy, then consider the case's factors, including the significance of the testimony, the witness' availability for trial, the effect of others on the witness, and the witness' reaction to the request.


Have any needed additional resources responded to the scene and completed their work?

Every scene is different. Some may require no additional assistance; others may require multiple resources and staging areas for special operations. Possible outside resources include:

  • Administrative and Logistical
    • Security company
    • Cojavascript:MMunications equipment
    • Physical facilities (generators, tents, etc.)
    • Caterer
  • Construction
    • Board up
    • Salvage
    • Heavy equipment
    • Towing
    • Refuse hauling
    • Portable buildings
  • Engineering and utilities
    • Gas, electric, water and other utilities
    • Structural and electrical engineering
    • Building code inspector
    • Electrician
  • Evidence
    • AK-9 unit
    • Forensic chemist
    • Crime Scene technician
    • Lab personnel
  • Legal
    • Prosecutor
  • Investigative
    • ATF
    • Forensic accountant
    • Insurance company
    • Juvenile expert
  • Safety
    • HazMat team
    • Carpenter
    • Bomb squad
  • Witnesses
    • Interpreter
    • Disaster aid society
    • Cojavascript:MMunity service organizations
    • Medical personnel
    • Mental health counselors

Make sure that the work of these persons is complete before releasing the scene.

Has the investigative team met and held a wrap-up meeting?

This final meeting should be used to review all information gathered, present the origin and cause determination and line it up with the facts, and ensure that all team members have completed their work and are satisfied that no additional tasks remain.

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