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Before the Fire: 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 assists the investigator in evaluating preparedness for the fire call.

Has a fire investigation plan been created with participation from all stakeholders?

While the details of every scene will be different, the basic approach to the fire investigation should be consistent and follow a pre-determined plan. When there is an established plan and clearly defined roles, it will be simpler to evaluate the available investigative resources and plug them into the protocol.

To create a plan, first identify and bring together all agencies with an interest in the fire investigation. Define the mission and the task at hand and build relationships among these entities. Work as a team to define the roles of all agencies involved in fire response and the duties of the personnel from those agencies. The team should then define the standard operating procedure for response to the fire call and rehearse this response from 911 call through arrest. Write up the process and distribute to all team members. Continue to communicate and refine the process. Consider whether this group should be made a permanent task force.

Have the responsibilities and duties of each member of the investigative team been defined and assigned?

Identify the personnel requirements for the fire scene and match them to your existing plan and available resources. Roles to be filled include:

  • Team Leadership
  • Immediate Area Investigation
  • General Area Investigation
  • Origin and Cause Determination
  • Photography
  • Schematics
  • Evidence Collection
  • Forensics
  • Follow-Up Investigation

Ensure that all team members understand their roles and responsibilities in advance of the fire call.

Have fire prevention efforts been initiated and continued in the community?

In addition to the traditional fire prevention days at community events, visiting schools to teach children the principles of escaping a fire, and advocating for smoke alarms and sprinklers, there are many things that can be done to prevent and control fires. First, gather resources and commitment from government, fire service, law enforcement, EMS, civic groups, schools, and citizens. A community board with members from all these organizations may be a good idea for your town. Then, identify and document the size and scope of the fire problem. Using police reports and fire incident reports, chart the scope of the fire problem in your community. Create a pin map to assist you in identifying hot zones. Then, create a plan of action to address these areas. Measures to abate a fire problem can include:

  • preventative patrols
  • hardening potential arson targets
  • improving street lighting
  • boarding up or demolishing abandoned buildings
  • targeting code inspections
  • meeting with owners of potential targets and formulating a prevention plan

Ensure that tasks to accomplish the goals are parceled out among participating agencies and organizations.

Have sources for additional resources that may be required at the fire scene been identified and their participation ensured?

Every scene is different. Some may require no additional assistance; others may require multiple outside resources and staging areas for special operations. Consider the requirements of the scene and determine who must be brought in. You will want to have a list of these specialists "on call" so no item is wasted at the scene. This requires seeking them out before the fire call and getting them on board to respond. Possible additional resources include:

  • Administrative and Logistical
    • Security company
    • Communications 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
    • Community service organizations
    • Medical personnel
    • Mental health counselors

Have all fire investigators been properly trained and are they continuing to keep up with developments in the field?

Proper training in fire investigation is crucial and can be obtained through ATF, state and local fire academies, community colleges, professional organizations, and independent schools/classes. Membership in professional organizations is encouraged and subscription to professional journals and publications will assist investigators in staying up to date with an evolving discipline. Attendance at conferences and training classes should be initiated by the investigator and facilitated by the department. Investigators should also maintain a reference library with materials such as interFIRE VR, NFPA 921, journals and textbooks.

Have all investigators been properly equipped to do their job?

Each investigator should have, at minimum, a "trunk-size" toolkit. InterFIRE VR includes a specific list of items for this kit. In general, include OSHA-approved safety gear, excavation tools, documentation equipment, and evidence collection equipment. Departments may also want to consider a larger response vehicle that can carry more gear or a full truck that includes larger pieces of equipment and a witness interview area. InterFIRE VR has suggestions for equipping these three levels of toolkits.

When a call out to a fire scene has been received, have equipment stocks been double-checked, necessary notification and standby calls made, and an open frame of mind set?

When the call comes in, double-check that all necessary equipment is packed. Make any notification calls or calls to get resources standing by. Then, take a moment to clear your mind and mentally prepare to approach the scene. Review the fire investigation plan and prioritize the first actions you will take upon arrival. Approach the scene with an open mind and be prepared.

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