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The Follow-Up Investigation: 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 follow-up investigation. At this point, it will be important to ensure that all investigation is complete and that a conclusion has been reached. As always, every case differs, and your professional judgment determines how the investigation should be conducted. These guidelines are intended only as a "self-check" and should be modified by the investigator as required. Please refer to the Before the Fire, Preliminary Scene Assessment, and Before Releasing the Scene checklists for actions that should have been taken prior to this point.

Have all appropriate governmental sources of information and assistance been consulted?
These sources can include municipal, county, state, and federal governments. Offices that may contain financial records, court records, building histories, and past incident records include the tax assessor, clerk, court, building department, fire department, DMV, medical examiner, sheriff. Investigative assistance can be sought from the State Police, ATF, Customs, IRS, USSS, FBI, and USPS.

Have all fire incident reports and police reports been reviewed?
These reports should be reviewed and key events, such as time of first alarm and time of fire company arrival, should be added to the timeline. Incident reports may also contain information given to police by people at the scene.

Have electronic databases that hold information pertinent to the case been consulted?
AEXIS (Arson and Explosives Incident System) collects and disseminates data about arson and explosives incidents. The AEXIS database can provide valuable cross-references on a wide range of incident characteristics and critieria. AEXIS is maintained by the National Repository Branch of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Arson and Explosives Program Division. Data collected include:

  • basic incident information (location, type, dates, losses)
  • fire incident information (ignition, cause of ignition, equipment involved)
  • structure information (type, building status, smoke detectors, extinguishment systems)
  • wildland fire information
  • arson information (suspects, motivations, method of entry and ignition, property security)

A query to the AEXIS system can be very helpful in identifying incidents with similar patterns, suspects, locations, or other criteria. In addition, you should submit data about the cases you are investigating so it can be added to the database. For more information on AEXIS, contact the National Repository at (202) 927-4590.

In addition to AEXIS, other databases such as wants and warrants, criminal histories, the Department of Motor Vehicles, stolen articles, AFIS (fingerprint database), DNA database, and public records can all assist in the investigation, depending on the circumstances of the case.

If applicable, has the accidental cause been researched and product defects or installation/maintenance violations reported?
If the determined cause is accidental due to an appliance, the investigator should report product defect to the Consumer Products Safety Commission and other appropriate bodies. If faulty installation or maintenance is to blame, the proper regulatory agencies should be notified of the violation.

Have all records and information been properly and legally obtained?
All records must be released through consent, court order, or other approved means. Failure to do so may jeopardize the admissibility of any evidence found.

Has a thorough financial investigation been conducted, with the assistance of a forensic accountant where applicable?
A thorough financial investigation should:

  • Interview owners, employers, occupants, family, friends, suppliers, and others about the suspect's financial status, payment records, and financial difficulties
  • Examine financial records such as tax returns, liens, judgments, loans, foreclosures, and tax delinquencies
  • Examine insurance files (see separate Checklist question)
If a more in-depth analysis of financial motive is necessary, engage a forensic accountant to perform an analysis.

Have all new witnesses been interviewed, any previous witnesses re-interviewed, and suspect(s) interviewed so that all statements have been corroborated or otherwise resolved?
During the follow-up investigation, new witnesses or suspects may surface and facts uncovered may require re-interviewing witnesses. All statements made by witnesses or suspects should be corroborated by the facts. Any unresolved issues should be explored with the witness or suspect.

Have all lab results been received and reviewed?
Remember that all AK-9 accelerant alerts must be verified by laboratory analysis. In addition, the laboratory can analyze explosives, fibers, prints, glass, handwriting, ignitable liquids, plastic and adhesives, toolmarks, and many other items. These lab results inform the follow-up investigation. The results of lab tests should be integrated into the theory of the case. For detailed information on all types of evidence and their lab tests, see interFIRE VR or consult your laboratory.

Have all insurance records been obtained in accordance with the law?
Records must be obtained by one of the following methods:

  • Signed release form from the insured
  • Subpoena, court order, or search warrant
  • Demand by a qualified official under the state's Immunity statute

Have all insurance files been thoroughly reviewed?
The investigator should obtain insurance records for property owners and occupants. These files include: the Agent/Broker Policy File, the Agent/Broker Claims File, the Insurance Carrier Claims File, the Underwriting File, the Property Insurance Loss Register (PILR) and Bodily Injury Claims Register reports, and the Special Investigative Unit File.

These files contain a wealth of information about the property that can be used to uncover suspicious or irregular activity, as well as inconsistencies with witness statements. The basic information that should be reviewed includes:

  • Details of the property's description and nature and if this matches what existed at the time of the fire
  • The itemization of losses in the claim and whether this matches what existed at the time of the fire
  • Statements given to the insurance company by the insured and others and whether they match statements given to the investigator
  • Reports from the insurance company's experts
  • Financial records included with the insurance
  • If one exists, the Examination Under Oath of the insured, which is not subject to 5th Amendment provisions
Look for material misrepresentations in property and inventory, inconsistencies, recent policy changes, payment problems, and prior claims history.

Have insurance company personnel been interviewed?
Insurance company personnel may have information about their dealings with the insured and can relay any conversations they had, as well as attest to their payment history and policy change requests. People to interview include:

  • Agent or broker
  • Underwriter
  • Adjuster
  • Origin and Cause Expert
  • Insurance company attorney
  • Special Investigative Unit

Be sure to work with any Special Investigative Unit, especially if the insurance company is refusing to pay the claim. Information uncovered in their claim investigation may assist you.

Have motive, means, and opportunity been considered and a theory of the case formed?
When developing the theory of the case, answering the questions of motive, means, and opportunity require you to think through all the facts and organize them. Consider who is the victim, what is the motive, what suspect had the means, and when did they have the opportunity. Answer key behavioral questions about the suspect, including where s/he was at the time of the fire, what was their financial status and their family status, who had access to the structure and how, and what were the recent activities of suspects. Line up all the physical evidence and cross-check all facts in this framework.

Has a timeline been constructed and supported with facts and witness statements?
Constructing a timeline is extremely valuable in sorting out how the incident developed. Timelines may stretch back years and include prior incidents, criminal activities, insurance changes, and financial problems as well as the events immediately preceding and following the fire incident. All timeline entries should be supported by corroborated facts.

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