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Incendiary Indicators

Situations or conditions may exist at fire scenes that suggest the possibility of the incident being incendiary. Information leading to this conculsion comes from three related sources/stages: 1) initial interviews, 2) scene examination, and 3) subsequent investigation.

Investigating details presented in the following stages will often aid in the unveiling of critical information.

Stage 1: The interview.

Information obtained through interviewing the owner of a business or other insured property.

  • New or increased coverage on the structure? Expiring coverage?
  • Obsolescence of items or location?
  • Any prior fires?
  • Prior insurance claims at that location or elsewhere?
  • Prior questionable or fraudulent claims?
  • Large amounts of cash claimed?
  • Domestic problems?
  • Closing of seasonal business?
  • Foreclosure or condemnation situation?
  • Numerous debts?
  • Property for sale (presently or unsuccessfully in the past)?
  • Relatives with previous fires?
  • Problems with neighbors?
  • Multiple insurance policies?
  • Fires to cover other crimes (especially embezzlement, tax evasion, burglary)?
  • Poor business?
  • Lacks ability to obtain raw materials or merchandise?
  • New highway bypassing business?
  • Controversies between owner and contractor during construction?
  • Repairs from first fire not completed or started before second fire totals the building?
  • Especially true if insurance coverage is too low to cover the total building: but, if burned twice, the coverage would be greater?
  • Owner or spouse in poor health or must retire shortly anyway?
  • Fires preceded by vandalism or threats by unknown persons?
  • Neighborhood deteriorating or planned for an "adverse" development?

Stage 2: Scene examination.

Information learned from a physical examination of the arson fire scene.

  • Unlocked, open, or forced exterior doors or windows after business hours?
  • Incendiary interior fire with locked exterior doors?
  • Intrusion/fire alarms disconnected or otherwise disabled?
  • Sprinkler system shut off or otherwise interfered with?
  • Question: are furniture and other furnishings present after the fire "normal" to the type and "style" of occupancy?
  • Non-communicated fire damage in two or more areas?
  • Obsolete or unusable contents?
  • Lack of expected contents--vacant rooms, empty closets, low food supplies?
  • Localized, low points of burning--irregular fire patterns?
  • Peculiar origin areas such as middle of a room?
  • Check doors and windows: locked, open when they should be closed, covered, nailed, blocked? Are there any signs of forced entry?
  • Thermostats set unusually high or low for season?
  • Wattage of light bulbs indicate intentional "over-bulbing"?
  • Amperage of fuses, signs of tampering, signs of accelerant poured in or around circuit boxes?
  • Appliance locations and settings?
  • Prized possessions missing from their expected or usual place?
  • Pets killed in the fire (locate remains)?
  • Family photo albums or framed pictures on walls or desk?
  • College diplomas or professional certifications (CPA, MD, etc.) displayed?
  • Special licenses?
  • Items of person memorabilia (game ball, bowling trophy, etc.)?
  • The Fire Insurance policy for the building is not destroyed in the fire?
  • Irreplaceable documents such as wills or deeds in the house--not destroyed?
  • Hobby materials destroyed (valuable guns, stamp collection, woodworking tools)?
  • Check "out" buildings and cartilage for unusual or unexpected storage?
  • Damaged, poor quality, obsolete or pre-burned contents?
  • Flash burn injuries to occupants (especially hands, face, lower legs)--possible accelerant used to set the fire?
  • Damaged or tampered fuel or electrical supply lines?
  • Condemned, deteriorated or flawed structure?
  • Termites or other insect damage?
  • Dry or wet rot?
  • Partly constructed before failure or bankruptcy?
  • Fires just prior to or during renovation?

Stage 3: Subsequent investigation.

Information learned concerning the motive or opporunity of people involved in an arson fire.

  • Occupants leaving shortly before fire?
  • No sign of forced entry; alarms or sprinklers fail? Who has the keys?
  • ALIBIS--trips, vacations or visiting friends.
  • Comments about the fire made to neighbors or friends before or after the fire occurs.
  • Comments made to people about the condition of the business, etc.
  • Movement of furnishings or valuables before fire.
  • Locked doors of business during a normal work day.
  • Surrounding business or neighbors not present during the time or the fire.
  • Nighttime or holiday fires.
  • Fires during storms or fog conditions.
  • Rumors of personal financial debts from a girlfriend, drug habit, gambling, etc.

Reprinted with permission from Management for Arson Prevention and Control. pages CC-11 to CC-14.

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