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How to Be a Good Witness to a Fire

Cathleen Corbitt

This narrative is intended for fire and law enforcement professionals to use as part of their fire prevention efforts. It can be distributed at fire prevention days, made available at fire company fundraising events, used as talking points when speaking to schools and civic groups, or otherwise disseminated to the community to build trust and partnership.

Most witnesses to a fire never thought they would be in that position. As a result, most of us are unprepared for the role. We may panic if we are in danger, we may act in heroic ways if others are threatened, we may stare in disbelief or shock as a building is consumed. Yet, we don't realize that, as an eyewitness, we have an opportunity to observe and note critical information that can help investigators understand how the fire started, and even who or what was responsible. To be a good witness, we need to be prepared for what we may see and conditioned to observe it closely. Knowing what questions you may be asked by an investigator can make all the difference in how you process the information your senses perceive.

There are two broad types of witnesses to a fire:

  1. People who were there when the fire started and saw it happen or arrived very shortly thereafter.
  2. People who were nearby and saw the fire event, but were not close enough to see how it happened. This may also extend to individuals who are familiar with the location of the fire and the people surrounding it, but who may or may not have seen the fire itself.

Witnesses in the first category are usually of the most immediate help to the investigator in determining how the fire started. They can describe either how the fire began or how it grew very soon after ignition. If you see a fire start or arrive very soon after, such as a person who may smell smoke in the house and encounter fire in the hall, your observations are crucial to determining where and how the fire started. After the event, you can expect an investigator to ask you questions like:

  • Did you see the fire start? If so, describe everything that happened up until the fire began.
  • What did you see when you first encountered the fire?
  • What did you do when you saw the fire?
  • How did the fire behave? What color was the fire? Was it very hot? How quickly did it spread? Was there a lot of smoke? What color was the smoke? Did the fire have a particular odor?
  • Describe the movement of the fire. Where did it start and how did it move?
  • What type of area did the fire start in? Was it a restricted area? A public area?
  • Did you observe anyone near the fire around the time it began? What was that person doing? What did they say? Did you recognize them and if so who was it?
  • Did you observe anyone in the structure or near the structure? What were they doing?
  • Who had access to the area where the fire started?
  • Were there any chemicals or flammable materials near where the fire started?
  • What hazards or hazardous behavior do you know of that existed in the area of the fire?

Therefore, as a primary eyewitness, you should be prepared to note everything you can about the events that preceded the fire, the behavior of the fire, the characteristics of the fire (flame color, heat, smoke color and density, smell), the description of the area where the fire started and who was in the area, and what you and others did. Note everything about people you saw: height, weight, hair color, complexion, clothing, and actions. Of course, you do not want to remain in the area of a fire to obtain this information. When any fire starts, your only goal must be to get to safety. However, whatever information you can note as you escape will assist investigators.

Witnesses in the second category are can be helpful in determining how the fire spread, but more often will have valuable information about life at the location before the fire and what, if any, suspicious activity there may have been. Immediate neighbors, employees, and passersby often fall into this category. Although you may be asked about the fire's characteristics, the more common questions will pertain to the structure itself and the people surrounding it. The investigator is trying to gather information on the normal activities at the building, what the people were like who lived or worked there, who had access to the location, who may have been near the location at the time of the fire, and generally reconstruct the sequence of events leading up to the fire, which may extend many weeks back. In addition to the questions above about fire and smoke characteristics, you can expect general questions about the location, as well as specific questions about that day and what you saw, such as:

  • How did you find out about the fire?
  • When did you first see the fire?
  • Who did you report the fire to and what did they do?
  • What did you observe at the fire scene?
  • Who did you see around the building at the time of the fire?
  • What were people doing around the building at the time of the fire?
  • Did you note any strange occurrences the day of the fire?
  • What time did these events happen? How can you be sure of the time?
  • What goes on at this building on a typical day?
  • Who is normally at this location and what do they do?
  • What do you know about the people who live/work here?
  • What, if any, different or suspicious activities have you seen lately?
  • What, if any, conversations have you had with people who live/work here?

You should take care to note everything you can about the location and the recent activity, as well as what you did. Note everything about people you saw: height, weight, hair color, complexion, clothing, and actions. Even something insignificant, like a blue car driving by, may turn out to be critical. As soon as you can, you may want to consider writing down what you observed and the time you observed it and making a list of everything you remember about the day of the fire.

In addition, you may be asked specific questions about persons related to the fire. Talking about people they know makes some witnesses uncomfortable. People are naturally reluctant to say something that might get others "in trouble." However, holding back information can severely hamper the investigation and endanger the lives of others. In general, the best policy is to be honest with investigators and give them as much information as you can. They are working in the public interest to ensure that the cause of the fire is discovered and that anyone responsible is held accountable for their actions.

You should also be aware that the fire investigator will ask you for contact information in case s/he needs to interview you again at a later date. This often happens in investigations; as facts are uncovered and theories pursued, there are naturally more questions for witnesses. Your continuing participation will further the investigation.

The fire investigator may ask you to give a recorded statement, either written or on tape. There may be a number of reasons for this, most importantly to provide a written record of your observations so that, later on, the investigator can refer to it as s/he lines up the facts of the case. Although you are free to decline to provide this, you should seriously consider complying, as it greatly assists the investigator in constructing a timeline and determining what happened.

Finally, it is important to come forward as a witness. Do not attempt to determine for yourself whether or not what you saw was important. That is the investigator's job. Your job as a witness is to truthfully and factually report what you saw, heard, smelled, and otherwise observed or knew. It is perfectly acceptable to approach a police officer at the scene, identify yourself as a witness, and indicate your willingness to report what you observed. The worst thing you can do is witness an event like a fire and walk away without reporting anything to an official. Each of us has a profound civic duty to assist in any way we can when lives and property have been damaged. It is in all our interests to have every fire solved; it makes our communities safer.

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