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Donahue, Michael L. The fire department's role in arson detection. National Fire & Arson Report. Vol 12 No 2 (June 1994). p 12-13+

Abstract: This article discusses the role that the first responding fire fighters can play in fire investigations.

Arson is a large part of the annual toll of fires. Unfortunately, the resources that fire departments are able to dedicate to arson investigation is limited, thereby reducing the potential for the successful prosecution of arsonists. Fire investigators must be selective in the fires that they investigate simply because they have a limited number of investigators available.

A critical component to an effective investigation can be the first arriving fire fighter and fire officer. There is a great deal of information that, if they are observant, can be relayed to the fire investigator. This information includes items such as what was on fire, where was the fire, what was the color of the smoke and flames, any unusual odors, how did they gain entry and where, and were there any separate fires.

Contrary to what many people think, there is a great deal of evidence remaining after a fire. This evidence can be lost or destroyed if overly aggressive overhaul is carried out. If fire fighters are trained and aware that they should limit their overhaul, it may be possible to preserve the scene until the fire investigator arrives.

Since the fire investigator is often called later in the incident, it is critical that custody of the scene be maintained until he or she arrives. This is important in preserving a chain of custody if the fire should be determined to be incendiary and evidence needs to be introduced in court.

Fire fighters are often given some training in fire investigation during their recruit class, but ongoing training throughout their career is not as frequent. It would greatly help the investigator if fire personnel received refresher training. The following are some suggested guidelines for them to consider when responding to a fire: weather conditions; people and automobiles leaving the scene; was the building occupied; condition of doors and windows; how was entry made; were there any coverings on the windows; were the suppression or detection systems impaired; had the utilities been tampered with; were any statements made by people on the scene; were there any obstructions, such as furniture; were any appliances, furniture, etc. missing; location of vehicles.

Additional valuable information includes the location of the fire; the fire behavior; its color; location of multiple fires; and fire spread.

The fire fighter can be a valuable asset in helping the fire investigator obtain critical information that can ultimately result in increases in arrests, prosecution rates and reductions in property damage, injuries and lives lost.

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