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Auto Arson Detection, Training Key #213. International Association of Chiefs of Police--Professional Standards Division. 1974.

Abstract: This article provides procedures for examining the major systems of a vehicle. The investigator should always compare what he learns from the fire scene to information learned from interviews of witnesses and owner of the car. These facts should reinforce each other and if there is a discrepancy, the fire was probably arson.

The fuel system should be closely examined. Examine the fuel tank to determine if it has been tampered with. Fuel lines should be intact and there should be no signs of tool marks. If the fire was a result of the carburetor, the device should be severely damaged and partly melted. If the fire was purposely set to look like a carburetor fire, the damage will not be as severe.

An electrical short can cause a vehicle fire when the battery's charge is low. An investigator can measure the battery's charge with a portable tester. A fully charged battery does not support a claim that an electrical short occurred. Experts should examine the wiring if there are suspicious circumstances surrounding the electrical system. The investigator should not attempt to disassemble the wiring because evidence could be destroyed.

Automobile fires are often contained in the compartment in which they started. The parts located in the engine compartment will not burn the entire car unless an accelerant is used to spread the flames. The engine compartment can reveal possible motives for arson. If a serious defect in the engine is discovered, the owner may have wanted to collect insurance money rather than pay for repairs.

The passenger compartment also offers clues to investigators. Most car owners guilty of arson will claim their cars were stolen before the fire was set. The investigator must validate this claim. The ignition should be checked for damage. If the ignition is intact, the investigator must figure out how the vehicle made its way to the fire scene. The position of windows is also important. Some arsonists will roll the windows down to supply the fire with oxygen. This should be noted if it is winter and the passengers would not normally roll down the windows. The condition of the windows is also important. A typical car fire would generate enough heat to melt the glass windows. An arson fire using an accelerant would generate much more heat, melting the windows.

Other hints that arson occurred include missing accessories, indicating that owner removed his possessions before the fire. If the car is stripped of parts, it may have been stolen and burned to destroy evidence. The exterior of the car should also be examined for damage, which could be bodywork the owner did not want to pay for. Once the car has been thoroughly examined, the investigator should search the scene for traces of accelerant.

For more information, contact:
International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP)
515 N. Washington Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
Phone: (703) 836-6767 or 1-800-THE-IACP

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