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Fatalities at The Fire Scene:
Simple Steps for Strong Results

By Cathleen Corbitt-Dipierro
Interactive Designer, interFIRE VR

The U.S. has one of the highest fire death rates in the industrialized world: 13.4 deaths per million persons.

Between 1992 and 2001, an average of 4,266 Americans died and another 24,913 were injured annually in fires. At least 80% of all fire deaths occur in residences.

Cooking is the leading cause of home fires in the U.S. and the leading cause of home fire injuries. Careless smoking is the leading cause of fire deaths.

Arson is both the second-leading cause of residential fires and residential fire deaths. In commercial properties, arson is the major cause of deaths, injuries, and dollar loss.

--United States Fire Administration (
Note: All statistics exclude the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

As these statistics illustrate, handling fatalities and injuries at the fire scene is a grim, and unfortunately far too commonplace, part of the fire investigator's job. Thorough investigation of the fire scene injuries and fatalities must be completed for several reasons:

  • A body subjected to fire effects can tell the investigator about the fire (and/or explosion), as well as about what occurred before, during, and after the fire. These facts may be crucial to fire origin and cause determination, as well as responsibility and motive in an incendiary fire.
  • Fire injuries and deaths can be related to other crimes, including arson, homicide, and robbery.
  • When investigating a scene, it is not possible to know if, and when, the case may come to civil and/or criminal trial. It may be years before the fire investigator is called to testify, therefore it is imperative to document properly and process evidence properly so the case can be recalled years later and successfully follow the judicial process.
  • More than other fires, fatal fires can create substantial media interest and scrutiny of the investigation by outside parties. The investigative methods and actions must stand up to this scrutiny.

Fire investigators must know how to process fatalities properly to preserve their evidentiary value. Failure to engage in proper practices can compromise investigative conclusions and the admissibility of evidence at trial. This article covers the crucial steps fire investigators and fire first responders must know to properly preserve and collect evidence associated with fire victims.

Even if a victim is not deceased at the scene, the fire investigator should apply the appropriate best practices in this article, such as collection of clothing and evidence, documentation of injuries, and consultations with medical personnel. Surviving victims may contain important evidence and patterns that should be part of the investigator's analysis. In addition, if proper procedures are followed and a victim does die after removal for medical attention, there will be continuity of investigative integrity.

A Strong Start: First Responder Actions

First responders to the fire scene (fire service, police, and EMS) have the first contact with victims either inside the fireground while performing rescue and suppression or outside when escaped or rescued victims are being treated. There are simple actions first responders can practice to preserve evidence from deceased victims or seriously injured victims.

  • Quickly remove all injured persons who can be assisted, administer medical treatment as per your training, and transport them to the hospital. According to Michael M. Baden, M.D. Forensic Pathologist NY State Police and Former Chief Medical Examiner, City of New York, "The first responder may need to quickly assess victims. As a general rule, the fire investigator should treat each injured fire victim as if they have a critical, life threatening injury…Administration of oxygen by the first responder may be necessary for anyone having difficulty breathing due to the inhalation of smoke and carbon monoxide. Intubation and insertion of an airway may be required for those who have suffered facial burns or if there is evidence of rapidly developing airway obstruction due to swelling and edema of the air passages caused by the inhalation of hot gases. Stabilization of injured persons should proceed as recommended by the prescribed Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) protocol."
  • Upon discovering a victim who is beyond medical aid, minimize fire suppression activities in the area so that evidence is preserved to the highest degree possible. Avoid fire suppression techniques, such as straight-stream, that disturb evidence or alter body positions.
  • Treat the body with respect. The deceased victim is someone's spouse or child or parent or sibling or friend. Even as you carry out necessary professional duties, do not lose sight of the dignity of each individual person. Respect should also be accorded to non-human animal remains.
  • Notify the fire investigator, police, and medical examiner as soon as a body is discovered.
  • Cordon off the area where a victim's body is.
  • Minimize foot traffic and equipment in proximity to the body.
  • Do not remove or move a victim who is beyond medical assistance. The position and condition of the body can give the medical examiner and fire investigator crucial information. Exceptions to the "do not remove the body" practice may be necessary in cases such as imminent collapse or very dangerous conditions. Consult command before disturbing a body.
  • Note any injuries to victims and statements made by victims. Make as many observations about victims as possible and communicate them to the investigator. Observation is especially important when victims are removed from the scene and the original body position may not be able to be determined. Your information about how the victim was found may be critical to the investigation.

When first responders take these steps, the fire investigator can do his/her job more effectively.

Take A Team Approach

Fire investigations involving injures and fatalities require a team approach. When a severe injury and/or death occurs at a fire, other agencies immediately become involved, including the police, the district attorney and the medical examiner's office. The investigator must work with the medical examiner, coroner, pathologist, toxicologist, evidence technician, police detective, photographer, EMTs, and medical personnel to ascertain what happened to the victim and what the victim did at the scene. Each of these professionals contributes analysis and a piece of the puzzle. All must work together to construct a complete picture of the incident.

The fatal fire investigation team should already know each other from the pre-investigation organization stage where relationships are established according to the team approach to fire investigation. Taking this step before the fire ensures that things will go smoothly during all subsequent investigations and that all victims will be treated with respect. Other resources may be necessary according to the case requirements, such as a forensic anthropologist.

The team should determine how to divide the investigative duties at this scene to ensure both the fire origin and cause and fire death investigations are completed. Set a regular time interval during the day to check in and share information. Continue this process throughout the scene investigation and follow-up investigation. Communication is key to linking up all the facts and occurrences into an accurate picture of the incident.

Adopt the Right Attitude

First, fire investigators should treat deceased victims with respect and be sensitive to the grief of loved ones who survive. At the same time, it is crucial to gather evidence around, on, and in the body, as well as the body itself. A good investigator will strictly preserve the integrity of the body as physical evidence, but remain sensitive to the family's feelings. All of the information and recommendations in this article are given with the utmost respect for the deceased victim.

Second, approach the scene with an open mind and follow the evidence where it leads. Frame your investigation of the victim by considering several questions:

  • Who is the victim?
  • What was the cause and manner of death?
  • What injuries did the victim sustain? Was the victim alive and conscious at the time of the fire? Why did the victim not escape? If the victim did escape, how?
  • What is the victim's relationship to the fireground? What does the fireground evidence say about the victim's actions and about cause and origin?
  • What, if any, crimes took place on the victim?
  • What is the timeline of events of the fire and what actions did the victim take in this timeline?
  • What relationship, if any, did the victim have to cause and origin?

Third, it is crucial to treat the fatality as a homicide until proven otherwise so that the strictest standards of preservation and access are maintained. Baden recommends, "When you encounter a fire death, whether at a residence, a commercial area or after a transportation vehicle crash or an explosion, you should approach it as if it were a homicide until proven otherwise. Due to the severity of the situation you should always consider collecting debris samples for analysis regardless of the suspected cause of the fire. The body should not be moved until it has been fully documented in writing, through diagrams and photographically, including distant and close-up views."

Secure the Body and the Scene

If the body has not already been secured, the investigator's first job on arrival is to secure the area and limit foot traffic to only the investigator and medical examiner unless extenuating circumstances exist. Secure not only the body, but also secure the clothing, shoes, and personal effects; they may contain trace evidence such as accelerants, hair, or fiber. Cordon off the area with yellow caution tape or other physical barrier, and, if necessary, request law enforcement support to maintain the perimeter. Log entry into and exit from the restricted area.

The scene must also be properly secured and the perimeter guarded. When a death has occurred, loved ones of the deceased may, in their grief, attempt to gain access to the property. They must be kept outside the perimeter to ensure the integrity of the scene. In addition, fire deaths tend to draw the media, community leaders, and curious onlookers–all of whom must be kept outside the scene. Request additional assistance as necessary to ensure scene security.

Exercise caution near the body. Consider bodily fluids biohazardous. Minimize contact with bodily fluids and follow Universal Precautions. In addition, caution should be exercised because evidence may be small and difficult to find. When you move into the search phase, search for evidence carefully, sifting as required, and handle the evidence with extreme care and caution due to its fragility. If there is a question about whether the fatality may have been a homicide, have the body x-rayed for evidence of shooting, stabbing, or other crime. Clothing can also be an important source of trace evidence and of evidence relating to cause of death, so preserve it carefully for laboratory examination.

At some scenes, it may be difficult to determine if a badly burned body is human. This can be especially difficult if the deceased is an infant or a child because the smaller size can be mistaken for an animal. Unless the remains can be conclusively identified as animal, the investigator should proceed on the premise that the body is human until examination proves otherwise.

Gather Basic Information

Work with the Incident Commander and other professionals on scene to gain a basic understanding of the incident, including time of alarm, response, fire observations, fire suppression activities, victims, witnesses, and unusual activity and behavior. Interview the first responding unit and the first-in firefighter for their observations of the structure, victims, witnesses, and actions.

Upon arrival, immediately secure information on any injuries and fatalities and the location of those victims. Interview surviving victims as soon as possible. Secure clothing, personal effects, and other items of evidence.

Make Notifications

When a death occurs, there are legal and procedural requirements for notifying police, coroner, medical examiner, and forensics laboratory. Notification requirements vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but at minimum any serious injury or death usually requires notifying the police department and the medical examiner. It is the fire investigator's responsibility to know their jurisdiction's requirements and make the notifications accordingly.

Document the Body: Photographs

As soon as possible, document the body and the surrounding area in both detail and wide area context photographs. In color, photograph:

  • The body before it is disturbed, including all exposed body surfaces. Take detail shots of any patterns, blast effects and injuries.
  • the removal of the body (after tracing the outline of the body on the floor in chalk, tape, or string) and any changes in the body during that process. You may also consider videotaping this process.
  • The location where the body was found after the body has been removed.
  • After the body has been removed to a separate location for examination, photograph any burns, injuries, and patterns. Take close-ups with a scale indicator (i.e., ruler) in the photograph.
  • Clothing, separately from the body, front and back, inside and outside.

For victims who have survived and been removed for treatment, documenation may include:

  • photography of the area where the victim was found
  • the statements of rescuers about where and how the victim was found, and any statements and injuries
  • photography of the victim's wounds as soon as possible after the injury and preferably before significant treatment is rendered

Document the Body: Diagrams

Diagrams of the body and its position in the room provide context and supplement photos. On the diagram, record the features of the scene (such as furniture) and the relative distances between the body and nearby objects. Outline the body should be outlined on the diagram and. As with all diagrams, indicate cardinal directions, scale, and units, label all features, and title the diagram.

Evaluate the Body

The body is part of the fuel load and should be evaluated accordingly. The body does provide fuel, including the clothing, fat in the body, and, to a lesser extent, skin and muscle and bone. The burn patterns on the body and the body's condition are part of the evidence of the scene, and must be examined for indicators of origin and cause and fire development. This examination is best conducted before the body is removed, so indicators on it can be interpreted as part of the overall scene.

When examining the victim's location, position, and condition, understand that fear and panic can cause people to do things that seem illogical and unexplainable. In addition, inhalation of smoke and toxic chemicals can disorient and impair judgment before a person falls unconscious, and thus the person may have made decisions that seem strange. As always, consider the totality of evidence when drawing conclusions.

Interview Witnesses and Surviving Victims

In a fatal fire, witness interviewing becomes even more important, especially if you have reason to believe that the death may have been the result of homicide. Witnesses help the investigator understand the decedent(s), their activities, and their relationships with others. Key witnesses at the fire scene include the person or persons who discovered the fire and/or the victim, the last person or persons known to be in the area of origin, and the last person or persons who saw the victim alive. First, take complete contact information to ensure you can interview the person at a later time, if necessary. Then, interview the person using established techniques. Ask questions about:

  • the fire
  • the location
  • the victim, including their habits and relationships (business and personal)
  • what the interviewee saw before, during, and after the fire
  • the interviewee's relationship to the structure and the victim
  • observations of the incident, circumstances of discovery, actions taken at the scene, and conversations with others

A building and neighborhood canvass will often help turn up witnesses who may not know about the fire, but may know something critical about the person or persons on the property.

This interviewing process may go on throughout the investigation, especially if injured victims have been removed from the scene and must be interviewed at the hospital. Time may elapse if the victim is severely injured and unable to speak until recovered.

Determine Chain of Events Leading Up to Death

The chain of events that lead to death may provide information to the investigator about the cause and origin of the fire. The investigator should work with the medical examiner to determine the victim's actions before, during, and after the fire up until the time of death, and anything that may have happened to the body after death. The investigator can interpret many factors involving the body, including:

  • Location of the body (Where was the victim found? Would that location be expected given the occupancy of the structure? If not, how did the victim get there and why? What is the location of the victim with respect to the fire origin? What does the location say about what the victim was doing at the time of death? Note any obstacles that may have blocked the victim's escape and whether they were naturally occurring, or possible purposely placed.)
  • Position of the body (In what position was the body found? Would this position be expected? What does the position say about what the victim was doing at the time of death?)
  • Clothing on the body (How was the victim dressed? Is the victim's clothing consistent with the time of day and year? Does the damage to clothing match the damage to the body?)
  • Burn patterns on the clothing and on the body (What do the burn patterns say about the victim's actions? About their interaction with the fire? About the fire dynamics? Do burn patterns on body and clothing match?)
  • Items found with and around the body (What is found on the victim's person? Nearby? Elsewhere in the structure? What do these items say about victim actions? About the fire origin and cause?)
  • Other injuries to the body (Was the body injured pre-fire? If so, what injuries and how might they have happened? Was any crime committed on the body prior to the fire?)

The investigator and medical examiner should work together to determine the relationship between the body and the fire. Most fire fatalities are caused by asphyxiation (usually from inhaled carbon monoxide bonding with hemoglobin and starving the body of oxygen); the fire then destroys the body. Other common fire causes of death are pulmonary edema and strangulation (spasm of epiglottis caused by inhalation of super-heated gases). But, just because a charred body is found at a fire scene does not mean that the fire caused the death. For example, the victim could have been killed prior to the fire and the fire set to cover the homicide. Careful examination of the body and the scene will determine how death occurred and what relationship the victim had to the fire.

The medical examiner can also assist the investigator in understanding the changes that take place in the body after death, including lividity, and what the presence of certain conditions says about the timeline of events leading up to the fire. The medical examiner can also use indicators like lividity and rigor mortis to establish a time of death. For example, if a body laying face-down at the fire scene shows lividity on the posterior of the body, it may indicate that the body was moved after death but prior to the fire. Lividity occurs at the lowest portion of the body and becomes fixed after 6-9 hours. If the person was found face-down, it would be expected that lividity would be on the front of the body (the lowest part). Lividity at the upper portion may mean the body laid on its back for a period of time, long enough for lividity to become fixed, and then was moved.

The scene may contain many other important items and conditions besides the body. Physical evidence such as burn patterns, trace evidence, or serological evidence may be present on clothing, furniture, walls, ceilings, floors and other items. These items may also provide clues to the actions of victims and others before, during, and after the fire. The investigator should examine all these items, including their condition, orientation, and function and add the observations to his/her timeline of the incident and analysis of what happened.

Identify the Victim

The victim's identification is key to understanding what happened at the scene. In addition, the victim's identity bears on motive and opportunity in an incendiary fire. If a homicide has been committed, identification is necessary for prosecution. Dr. Baden recognizes the importance of a quick identification, "Rapid identification of a burn victim is very important in furthering the investigation. Such identification should be confirmed by fingerprints, by comparison of the teeth at autopsy with pre-mortem dental records or by comparison of any available pre-mortem X-rays with post-mortem X-rays. There are 206 bones in the human body and each is unique for a given individual and may provide the basis for a positive identification if X-rays taken during life are available."

Identification done at the scene should be confirmed at autopsy. Some identifications may not be able to be done until autopsy because of the condition of the body. As Dr. Baden indicates, identification of the victim can be done in several ways:

  • Visual observation is often difficult because of the condition of the body and because fire and heat can distort the visual appearance of skin and hair. Visual identification should be confirmed by other means.
  • Clothing and personal effects can assist with a preliminary identification. However, since these items can be moved from one person to the other, they cannot be relied upon as the sole means of identification.
  • Identifying markings such as tattoos, birthmarks, or previous injuries.
  • Fingerprints are a nearly certain means of identification and can be used if previous fingerprints are available for comparison.
  • Dental x-rays. Teeth are often protected from fire by the head and can be x-rayed for comparison to existing dental records.
  • X-rays of the body can be compared to previous x-rays, if available, and prosthetics and implants may be able to be identified. X-rays are also necessary to determine if the body sustained injuries such as gunshot or knife wounds, which may signal a fire set to cover up a homicide. X-rays are a good method to identify bodies too damaged for other means of identification.
  • DNA or serological typing can be done if previous tests or family members are available for comparison.

After the victim's identity is established, the investigator should determine everything possible about the victim, including:

  • Full legal name
  • Aliases
  • Address (if different than location of the fire, why was the victim there and what were they doing there?)
  • Date of birth
  • Sex
  • Age
  • Race
  • Marital Status
  • Physical condition
  • Mental status
  • Medical condition, including addictions
  • Immediate and close family members
  • Employer(s)
  • Business relationships
  • Personal relationships
  • Problems and conflicts with others

The investigator should interview persons related to the victim and ask questions as appropriate to the investigation.

Recover the Body and Evidence Related to the Body

After in situ documentation is complete and the medical examiner, fire investigator, and homicide investigator (if appropriate) have concluded their on-scene observation of the body, it may be removed. Do not remove the body until you are certain that the portion of the investigation involving the body at the scene is completed. Once you move the body, it cannot be replaced as it was originally found. Know and follow the local policy in your jurisdiction about whether the medical examiner or coroner must be present when the body is removed.

There may be situations when the body must be moved before examination in situ is complete, including falling debris hazard or threat of collapse. Consult with professionals, including the medical examiner's office, to determine if it is better to move the body to avert further destruction and/or danger to investigating personnel.

Be aware that bodies pose health risks, include blood-borne pathogens. Observe Universal Precautions when handling evidence that may have bodily fluids on it. Coordinate with any specialists like the medical examiner or forensics technician in the processing of the body for evidence. Direct the photographing, diagramming, collection of clothes, and collection of other evidence. Collect all evidence according to established protocols for that type of item. See Appendix A for information on how to collect items containing bodily fluids. Remember that blood-soaked items must be dried before packaging. This can be done on butcher paper at the scene.

Exercise caution when removing the body because fire can render the body brittle. Dr. Baden recommends, "After the body has been documented, care must be taken when moving the body so as not to disturb or lose any trace evidence that may be on the clothing, hair or skin, this is especially important when an explosion may have occurred. This can best be accomplished by transporting the body, wrapped in a clean white sheet, if possible, in the position found." Take care to ensure that any items that fall off of or out of the body are collected. When the body is removed, all debris on the body or nearby the body should also be collected and preserved for testing (trace, accelerant, toolmarks, etc.). Include items found under the body.

Photograph the removal of the body and the location where the body was discovered (after body has been removed). If there is an outline of the victim (i.e., victim's body caused a protected area), photograph that as well.

If victims have been removed for treatment, their clothing should be recovered by the investigator as soon as possible. Medical personnel will likely have removed this clothing to treat the victim and should save it for the investigator. Clothing should be collected and preserved according to established standards.

Search the Area

Prior to executing any search, ensure that the proper legal foundation for the search has been laid. This legal foundation can be exigent circumstance, written or verbal consent, or criminal or administrative search warrant. The legal foundation for search should be properly documented.

After the body has been removed, the fire investigator and law enforcement should work together to search the immediate area using an accepted method, such as grid search. The search should include sifting of debris through screens. Pay special attention to the layering of debris, especially the relationship of burned and unburned layers. What does this suggest to you about the sequence of events?

The body itself is not the only possible location for evidence. Evidence may be located in other parts of the room or of the structure, or even outside the structure. All of these areas must be systematically searched according to an accepted search method such as grid or line. The specifics of how to conduct grid and line searches are beyond the scope of this article, but may be reviewed in, Post-Blast VRT, or many of the resources in the bibliography of this article.

Conduct a thorough inspection of the structure to determine if there were code violations, illegal uses, prior violations, criminal activities, or other circumstances that may inform the investigation. Coordination with local inspectors and police may be needed to make this assessment.

Perform Autopsy and Determine Cause and Manner of Death

A qualified medical examiner should perform an autopsy on all fire fatalities. Autopsy is the only means to conclusively establish the cause of death. The autopsy must take place before embalming. Embalming destroys the capacity to perform numerous tests of investigative value.

The investigator should be present at the autopsy to consult with the medical examiner, answer questions, assist in interpretations, and collect any evidence that may be found. Dr. Baden echoes this recommendation, "We strongly recommend that you or a member of your investigative team attend the autopsy to exchange information with the medical examiner. Additional advantages to attending such procedures are that you can immediately take any additional evidence into custody that might be retrieved, and you will not have to wait to receive the official report to learn of the results of the autopsy." The fire investigator can advise the medical examiner on fire effects and fire conditions so the medical examiner can better interpret the remains.

The postmortem examination will establish:

  • the identity of the victim
  • cause of death (mechanism which brought about death), including immediate cause of death and any contributing or secondary causes
  • manner of death (the circumstances in which the cause of death occurred)
  • time of death
  • description of wounds and injuries and how they were caused

The fire investigator should request that the following examinations be part of the autopsy:

  • Blood tests for COHb percent saturation (the measurement of the amount of carbon monoxide in the body), HCN concentration, blood alcohol level, presence and concentration of drugs, and poisons (when indicated)
  • Internal tissue tests for drugs, poisons, and volatile hydrocarbons
  • External tissue burn patterns (including determination of antemortem and postmortem wounds–See NFPA 921 for a discussion of the characteristics of antemortem vs. postmortem burns)
  • External tissue near burns tested for vital chemical or cellular response to burns
  • Stomach contents, including presence or absence of soot in the respiratory and digestive tract
  • Airways examination for edema, scorching or dehydration, and soot. Soot in the throat and lungs is a strong indicator that the victim was alive at the time of the fire
  • Internal body temperature
  • X-rays, both for identification purposes and to examine for penetrations (especially important in situations of explosions) and injuries
  • Assessment of degree of burns (first, second, third, and/or fourth) and estimate of the percent of body area burned
  • Mechanism of burn injury (thermal or chemical; radiant, conducted, or convected)
  • Trace evidence and burn pattern testing of the body, clothing, and personal effects
  • Ignitable liquid testing as appropriate on the body, clothing, and/or effects and items found with the body
  • Examination of clothing for suitableness of attire (i.e., was the victim clothed normally for that time of day and year), interpretation of burns and damage, and indications of what the victim was doing at the time of the fire
  • Determination of sex, age, race, weight, height, and identity

Fire has effects on the body that should be taken into account when interpreting the remains. For example, fire causes skin to shrink and the shrinking skin may split, which can be mistaken for blunt trauma injuries. In another example, fire causes the muscles to contract, flexing the joints of the body. This can create the "pugilistic pose," which has been mistaken for a defensive posture of a victim being attacked, when in fact it was caused by a fire effect. Taking this effect further, severe flexion of joints from thermal effects can fracture bones, which have been mistaken for pre-fire injuries. Similarly, skulls do crack, often along the suture lines, as a result of the swelling of brain tissue or expansion of gases inside the skull as the body heats. Possible explanations like these should be taken into account when the body is evaluated. For a detailed discussion of interpreting fire effects in the pathological examination, consult the Kirk's Fire Investigation chapter on Fire-Related Deaths and Injuries. In addition, an extensive discussion of the effects of combustion on a body and of postmortem changes in the body can be found in NFPA 921.

Figure 1

Sample Medical Examiner's Diagram of Injuries on an Explosion Victim. Click the image for a larger version.

The investigator should also request the documentation of the body as follows:

  • Photographs of the body clothed and unclothed, both sides, including closeups of burns and injuries, taken as soon as possible after the injury
  • Diagram of burns and injuries on the body, including indicators of the location, distribution, and degree (see Figure 1 for an example)
  • Documentation of any major physical trauma, such as gunshots, fractures, knife wounds, and sexual assault. Evidence should be collected according to established professional guidelines.

Determination of cause of death should be done by the medical examiner or other qualified professional, and may not be able to be determined until autopsy. Studies have shown that more than three-fourths of fire victims die from carbon monoxide poisoning (NFPA 921: 2001 Edition, section 20.5.1), and typically die somewhere other than the room of origin. Other causes of death due to fire effects include:

  • Hyperthermia (exposure to a hot environment raises body temperature to a fatal level, about 109ºF for a few minutes). Hyperthermia may or may not be accompanied by burns, depending on how hot the ambient temperature was.
  • Inhalation of hot gases, which can cause strangulation when the epiglottis spasms.
  • Poisoning from toxic gases.
  • Inhalation of soot and smoke (can act in a number of ways, including blocking airways and causing asphyxiation, or chemical edema, or thermal injuries leading to edema).
  • Hypoxia (when breathing in a reduced oxygen atmosphere, which is caused as combustion uses the available oxygen, the body gradually decreases its respiration until unconsciousness results).

Often, one central question the investigator is interested in answering is whether or not the victim was alive or dead when the fire started. Baden describes how this can be determined, "Whether the decedent was alive or dead when the fire started is ascertained by determining if the decedent was breathing when exposed to the fire environment. If a person is alive and breathing after a fire starts, that person must inhale the products of combustion of the fire, in particular, soot and carbon monoxide. Such evaluation requires that autopsies be done on all burned bodies. Soot in the trachea, bronchi and other air passages, and carbon monoxide in the blood demonstrates that the decedent was alive when the fire started. The inhaled carbon monoxide attaches to iron in the red blood cells, causing the blood to become bright cherry-pink and to turn the normally blue-maroon lividity that develops after death as the blood settles to a cherry-pink. Toxicologic studies are necessary to confirm the presence and amount of carbon monoxide."

When the autopsy is complete, the medical examiner will issue a report and provide diagrams and other documentation. Click here for a sample autopsy report, conducted on a fictional explosion victim, to see a typical report format and content. The medical examiner may also issue a death investigation report, summarizing their activities and observations at the scene. Click here to see a sample death investigation report, conducted on a fictional explosion victim, to see a typical report format and content.

The body should not be released for burial or cremation until all testing and examination is complete. Once the body is buried, it cannot be exhumed without a legal process, which can be lengthy. In addition, once the body begins to decompose, some tests become difficult, or impossible, to do. Obviously, if the body is being cremated, once that procedure is completed, there will be no more chances to examine the body.

Assess Evidence of Surviving Victims

If the victim has survived, their body can still yield information of investigatory value, including burn patterns, injuries, and explosion pieces. This information can further the investigator's understanding of the incident. If possible, investigators should be present in the hospital emergency room and surgery suite where they can directly document and collect evidence as it is observed on or removed from the body. When communicating with medical personnel, the investigator should:

  • Contact the hospital and identify themselves, inform the supervisor or the hospital's law enforcement liaison of the need to preserve evidence, and arrange to meet the victim or accompany the body through surgery and any medical treatment, if possible
  • Interview medical staff who treated the patient and ask them what the victim said, what family members or others with the victim said, what the injuries were, what they observed about the damage to the victim, what items were removed or recovered from the victim and where they were located. Medical personnel should also be asked to describe injuries, anything unusual or extraordinary, and evidence of previous injuries.

The investigator should ensure he/she properly accesses medical information and records as per appropriate legal methods. Many tests germane to fire-related injuries are part of a routine examination when a fire patient arrives at the hospital, including:

  • Percentage of COHb
  • HCN concentration
  • Blood alcohol, drugs, and blood pH

The sooner the blood sample is taken, the more helpful the results to the investigator because percentage concentrations of substances will have naturally degraded less.

The investigator should interview the medical personnel who treated the victim to determine:

  • Condition of the victim's airways, including presence of soot, thermal damage, and edema
  • Burns and burn patterns
  • Explosion-related injuries
  • Other injuries not caused by the fire
  • Statements made by the victim
  • Physician's assessment of what the injuries say about the victim's activities before, during, and after the time of the fire

The victim's clothing and personal effects should also be collected as evidence. As discussed previously in this article, surviving victims should be interviewed as soon as their condition allows.

Follow-Up Investigation

After the scene has been released, the fire investigator should continue on with the normal follow-up investigation process, as indicated by the origin and cause determination. A complete discussion of the follow-up investigation is beyond the scope of this article, and can be fully understood by reading the interFIRE VR Tutorial section on the Follow-Up and Insurance Investigations. In the case of fatalities, the follow up investigation should include:

  • Remaining interviews of victims and witnesses, especially those too injured to be interviewed at the time of the on-scene investigation
  • Attendance at the autopsy
  • Review of the autopsy results and medical examiner's conclusions
  • Review of lab results from tests on physical evidence
  • Review of any document evidence, such as insurance and financial records, as warranted by the investigation
  • Review of incident reports from the fire department and police department
  • Follow-up meetings with the police investigator if a crime is part of the case
  • Coordination with the insurance investigator, if an insurance claim is part of the case

A Note on Explosions

If an explosive event took place in addition to the fire, whether accidental (as in a propane tank explosion) or intentional (as in a pipe bomb), evidence may be embedded in the tissue of the victim. Explosion victims should be x-rayed for shrapnel evidence, and may need to be autopsied or operated on with an explosives expert present who can identify items removed from the body as potential evidence.

Fragments from an explosive event should be collected by a trained and qualified person. If this person is not the investigator, the investigator should be present at the collection, if possible, and/or take custody of the evidence after recovery. Remember: blood-soaked fragments may contain blood-borne pathogens. Record the location of each piece of debris. After any blood evidence is collected from them, these fragments may be lightly rinsed in slowly running distilled water to cut down on blood-borne pathogens from dried blood and tissue attached to the fragment. Any rinsing of large accumulations of blood and tissue should be done very carefully so accelerant or explosive residue is not lost. Only items with large accumulations of blood and tissue should be rinsed. Allow to air-dry before packaging. Final packaging can be in plastic or glass containers, plastic or paper bags, or boxes. Mark evidence with a biohazard label before sending to lab.

If an explosion was also part of a fire incident, the victim may have explosion-related injuries. The characteristics of explosion injuries can provide information on the actions of the victim, the location and characteristics of the item that exploded, and assist in reconstruction of the incident. Explosion-related injuries are classified into four categories:

  • Blast pressure injuries where the concussion of the blast causes internal injuries.
  • Shrapnel injuries where fragments penetrate the body or cause blunt trauma.
  • Thermal injuries where the brief explosion flash causes burns.
  • Seismic effect injuries are caused when the blast damages the building and it collapses, causing injuries.

The medical examiner and the investigator should work together to interpret the damage to the body and the chain of events of the explosives incident.


Covering how to write a good report is beyond the scope of this article. Refer to the interfire VR Resource File articles Writing the Fire Investigation Report and Arson Investigation Basics: Reports and Documentation for more information. Make sure your report fully details the investigation into the death, the relationship of the fire and the death, and any pertinent information on the victim that has bearing on origin, cause, and/or responsibility. Include victim photographs and diagrams as part of your report.

All fire fatalities should be reported to state and federal entities using the proper NFIRS form. For more information on NFIRS, visit


Baden, Michael M., M.D. "Handling Injuries and Fatalities." interFIRE VR tutorial. 1999.

DeHaan, John D. Kirk's Fire Investigation. Fourth Edition. 1997.

Fire/Arson Investigation Course Instructor's Guide. 2nd Edition (2000). USFA. FEMA. Unit 9 (Injury and Fatal Fire Investigation).

interFIRE VR tutorials "Handling Injuries and Fatalities" and "Evidence Collection: Bodily Fluids," including "Recovery of Evidence from Victims" (abstracted from a document contributed by Dr. John D. DeHaan, Forensic Scientist, California Dept. of Justice, Criminalistics Institute). 1999.

NFPA 921 Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations 2001 Edition. NFPA.

Post-Blast VRT tutorial on fatalities and "John Anderson" Scenario fatality information. ATF. 2002.

United States Fire Administration Fire Fact Sheets

Appendix A

Evidence Collection: Body Fluids (from interFIRE VR)

Blood and other body fluids can be examined for species, race, sex, type, DNA, and other characteristics. Comparison of questioned to known is also possible. The following guidelines for the collection and preservation of questioned blood, body fluids and tissues are included here as a general reference; the investigator should get precise instructions on handling serological evidence from a certified crime scene technician or from the serology section of their jurisdiction’s forensic laboratory or the ATF or FBI National Laboratories.


1. Document any body fluid patterns, spatters, stains, pools, drops, and the like with close-up scaled photographs and medium distance context-establishing shots.

2. Any item or material bearing suspected blood, semen, saliva, other body fluid stains or tissues must be allowed to air-dry at room temperature prior to packaging; exposure to direct sunlight and/or heat should be avoided. Failure to ensure complete drying of such samples may result in their putrefaction and loss.

3. Use cleaned tweezers or other tool to remove the body fluid-stained item. Package each item individually in an air-permeable but otherwise securely closed container such as a paper bag. Fragile substrates such as glass should be carefully wrapped in paper and securely packages to avoid (further) breakage.

4. Label and seal the container properly, including your name, date, description, and exhibit number. Consult your jurisdiction’s forensic laboratory or a certified national laboratory for instruction on refrigeration of samples.

5. If the stain is on a substrate which is too large to submit intact, either cut away the section of the surface bearing the stain, or dismantle the object to recover and submit the stained portion. Collect according to steps 2 through 4.

Sufficiently copious bloodstains on an immovable substrate may be scraped off with a clean knife or razor blade and collected into glassine or clean white paper, folded pharmacy-style to prevent leakage, and placed into a paper envelope. Do not collect scrapings directly into envelopes. If you are collecting multiple samples, each must be collected with a clean tool. Label the container(s) according to step 4. Retain and package the tools used to collect the scrapings.

6. If the stain is encrusted on the surface of soil or sand, remove the crusts and place into separate paper pillboxes; then collect the bulk stained matrix in paper ice cream-type containers.

If moist blood is available for collection, such as from a pool on a tile floor, use a clean dropper to collect as much as possible (up to 10 cc) into a glass vial. Add an equal volume of isotonic saline solution (0.9% sodium chloride) to the vial. Seal and label the vial as described above. Or, you may soak up the moist blood with a new, sterile gauze pad, air dry the gauze pad, then collect the gauze pad as described above in steps 2-4. Biohazardous material should be marked as such before it is sent to the lab.

For instructions regarding the collection and submission of known blood, saliva, or tissue samples for comparison in a specific case, please telephone the ATF laboratory or your local laboratory. Depending upon the type of evidence involved, the analyses to be undertaken (traditional serology or DNA), and the particular laboratory to which the evidence will be referred, known sample collection and preservation requirements may vary.