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The Preliminary Scene Assessment: A Checklist

The Fire Protection
Research Foundation
©Copyright February 2002

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 scene activities after the preliminary scene assessment, but before the scene is processed. At this point, it is important to ensure that all scene evaluation and planning have been completed before proceeding with the in-depth scene examination. 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. For preparatory actions that should have been taken to this point, please refer to the Before the Fire checklist.

Working With Professionals

Has the Incident Commander been consulted and basic incident information secured?
When you arrive on the scene, contact the Incident Commander first. Establish a working relationship at the scene and discuss the stage of the fire operations and the investigative tasks you will be performing. The IC can give you valuable information about the incident, including:

· Reported alarm time
· Fire department response time and response units
· Building security upon arrival
· Persons on scene when the fire department arrived
· Fire department's observations of the fire and activity surrounding the fire scene
· How entry was gained and how the fire was suppressed
· Actions of firefighters at scene
· Description of scene condition
· Nature of incident
· Fire
· Explosion
· Fire and explosion
· Any crimes noted
· Knock down time
· Victims encountered, how treated, and where removed to
· Property description
· Identification of:
· Owner(s)
· Occupant(s)
· Victim(s)
· Suspect(s)
· Witnesses
· Passerby rescuer(s)

Have the fire suppression operations been discussed with the Incident Commander to ensure that evidence is preserved and overhaul is limited?
The fire service's response must ensure the safety of the firefighters and eliminate the possibility of rekindle. However, there are techniques that can be employed to preserve evidence and there is an attitude that can be adopted to limit overhaul. Speak with the IC to implement an approach that balances safety concerns and evidence preservation.

Has the first-in firefighter been interviewed and a scene walkthrough conducted?
The first-in firefighter will have valuable eyewitness information about the fire behavior and the condition of the structure. Ask the first-in firefighter:
· About any pre-fire department attempts to extinguish the fire
· Where entry was made
· What was encountered in the structure
· How the fire was suppressed
· What furniture or other items the fire department moved
· To describe the contents of structure and their location
· To describe the fire behavior
· About victims found
· If there are any immediate clues to cause

Has the first responding police officer been interviewed?
The first responding police officer will provide information on what was going on at the scene upon arrival. Ask:
· Who was at the scene and how they behaved
· What observations were made of the scene, the fire, and escaping victims
· What actions the police took
· Who spoke to police and what they said
· What, if any, witnesses were identified
· If anything unusual was observed or noted

Has EMS been interviewed?
EMS will report information on the victims, including:
· How the victims exited the structure
· Who the victims were
· What injuries the victims sustained
· What treatment was rendered to victims
· Where the victims were taken for further treatment
This information can assist in determining how the fire started, who should be interviewed, and who might be responsible.

Scene Safety and Security

Have all fire suppression operations been completed and has the fire department determined that the structure is safe for investigative operations?
Do not begin the investigation inside the structure until the fire is out, the structure is vented, and it has been declared structurally safe. In the meantime, the investigator can concentrate on scene security and witness activities outside the building.

Have the proper authorities disconnected all utilities to the building?
Contact the proper authorities to shut off utilities to the building. All meters and valves should be properly tagged as shut off. This ensures no electrical or gas accidents during the course of the investigation.

Has the legal right of entry into the scene been secured?
There are four options for right of entry into the scene:
· Warrantless entry under exigent circumstances. Exigent circumstances only extend for a "reasonable" amount of time and should be reviewed if the investigation continues for an extended period of time.
· Consent. Consent can only be given by the legal occupier of the structure and can be withdrawn at any time.
· Administrative search warrant
· Criminal search warrant
Search warrants require a court's intervention, and in the case of a criminal warrant, a proof of probable cause that a crime has been committed. If you are unsure about your legal right of entry, consult your local prosecutor.

Has a perimeter been established and secured around the structure? Has a single point of ingress and egress been designated and has it been determined which personnel are authorized to access the scene?
Scene security is extremely important, both for safety and evidence preservation reasons. Err on the side of establishing a larger perimeter and make sure that only authorized personnel are allowed inside and that their comings and goings are logged.

Have all safety issues at the scene, including hazardous materials, physical barriers, and structural stability been addressed?
All these issues should be addressed at the scene prior to beginning the origin and cause examination. If necessary, involve experts such as a structural engineer to render an evaluation. Inform the Hazmat team if there is any suspicion of hazardous materials at the location, especially at industrial fires.

Have key evidence areas been secured inside and outside the structure?
A quick assessment of possible areas of origin will provide a guideline for what key evidence areas need to be secured. These areas should be taped off and personnel should be instructed to leave them undisturbed. In addition, protect exterior areas that may hold evidence like footprints, tire tracks, or discarded accelerant containers.


Have all initial witnesses been identified and contact information secured, including members of the crowd?
Upon arrival, there may be crowds gathered, victims wandering around, and neighbors milling about. The immediate area should be canvassed as quickly as possible and witnesses identified. Securing their contact information immediately and asking those with information to remain until an interviewer can see them will ensure that fleeting witnesses do not leave the scene when the action calms down-thereby taking their information with them. Also ask the police and fire departments who they identified upon arrival. The police department can assist with the task of identifying all witnesses and securing contact information.

Scene Assessment

Has a preliminary size-up of the structure and incident been conducted?
A preliminary size-up of the structure and incident will provide the necessary information to determine how to proceed with the investigation. Areas of interest include:
· Construction and nature of occupancy
· Fire-damaged locations
· Utilities
· Conditions of doors and windows
· Broken glass
· Indicators of explosion
· Signs of forced entry
· Meter readings
· Fuel tank locations
· Housekeeping condition
· Electrical appliances
· Fire protection devices
· Fuel loads
· Utilities, document positions found in
· Amount of debris that will have to be moved
Important areas should be taped off and secured until the full investigation begins.

Have all necessary additional resources been identified and contacted to respond to the scene?
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. 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
· 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 cross-contamination control measures been implemented?
Cross-contamination can be an issue at the fire scene. To guard against cross-contamination:
· set up a decontamination line and instructing personnel in its use
· refrain from using gas-powered tools
· tape off evidence areas
· limit access to the scene
· use new or properly cleaned gear and tools
· use new, sealed evidence containers

Have the responsible parties assembled a team to undertake the investigation, created a plan for approaching the scene, assigned roles and duties, and ensured that all team members have the necessary equipment to carry out their tasks?
You should already have an investigative plan drawn up and have existing relationships with police, fire, and other agencies. Identify the personnel requirements at this 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. Set regular times to meet, exchange information, and plan the next step. Make sure all personnel have access to the necessary tools and safety equipment to do their jobs.

Has the investigation team coordinated their activities with other professionals operating at the scene?
Make sure you are in full cooperation with the Incident Commander, fire service, police, EMS and other agencies. Ensure that the chain of command is clear and that roles are clear. Designate a representative from each agency and route all information through that person. Have investigative personnel coordinate their activities with everyone else on the scene and set regular "check-in" meetings to ensure things are running smoothly.

Has a case file been established?
A case file is a central collection point for all documentation on the scene. Copies of witness statements, log files, notes and the like should be kept at this location.

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