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Arson Investigation Basics: Reports and Documentation

excerpted from "Motive, Means, and Opportunity, A Guide to Fire Investigation."
American Re-Insurance Company, Claims Division, 1996.

Table of Contents


In arson cases, successful prosecution hinges on the expertise of the investigator and his/her skill in interpreting the diagnostic signs of fire behavior at the scene. Observe carefully and use your observations to "get inside the head" of a possible arsonist. What could he have been thinking? How experienced is the arsonist? Inept or inexperienced arsonists may set themselves on fire, cause unnecessary or premature explosions or kindle a fire that's not self-sustaining or capable of developing into a larger fire. The availability of fuels at the scene and means of procuring other fuels or devices may all point toward the identity of an arsonist.

At the outset, the investigator should consider these questions:

  • Is there enough fuel at the site to explain the extent of the destruction or was additional fuel needed?
  • Was there a "natural" mechanism for igniting the normal fuels present?
  • Does the arrangement of fuels and contents appear normal or configured in some way?
  • Was the direction and rate of fire spread normal for the kind of fuel and amount of ventilation present?

In making these observations, it's important to stay open-minded. Do not overlook the possibility of accidental and natural causes in even the most suspicious fires. In fact, the elimination of natural causes is part of the process of proving arson.

IMPORTANT!!!! Document, Document, Document!!!!!!!! Write down or use a tape recorder to capture all information gathered at the scene.

Documentation of the Fire Scene*

Investigators must be able to thoroughly document the fire scene and the investigative steps, including photography and scene sketching for possible court presentation. You must be able to use efficient, legally acceptable methods of gathering data to prepare fire scene documentation.

The Arson Investigator's Notes

Notes must be taken to record observations and activities for use in preparing a formal report and possibly testifying in court. Notes should focus on just the facts and include the "Who, What, Where, When, Why, How" details of the case, plus-

  • observations about the scene
  • who provided the information
  • rough sketches
  • weather conditions
  • witnesses
  • suspects

Notes should not include-

  • groundless accusations
  • personal opinions
  • extraneous information
  • anything you wouldn't like to discuss on the witness stand

The Arson Investigator's Reports

Reports formally record the facts of the incident and give you an organized, concise record from which to testify. Reports should include everything in your notes.

Reports should not include-

  • anything that shouldn't be included in the notes
  • your qualifications
  • your actions before going to the scene
  • fire slang
  • legal "buzz words" such as search, seized, evidence, interrogated

General pointers for report writing-

  • Do not use slang
  • include-
    • copies of photos
    • statements
    • criminal histories
    • police reports (if separate)
    • lab reports
    • witness list
    • diagrams
    • charts
    • maps

a. Fire Cause & Origin Reports should include-

(1) Information about fire suppression activities

(a) Department

(b) Equipment

(c) Personnel (shift?)

(2) Information about the fire

(a) Who reported it?

1) name

2) addresses (home and work)

3) phone numbers (home and work)

(b) How was it reported?

1) Phone (residence, business, mobile?)

2) Police

3) Walk-in to station

(c) First responders' observations

1) Fire fighters

a) Smoke showing? (color?)

b) Flame showing? (color?)

(c) Anything blocking ingress?

(d) Hydrants (tampered with or blocked?)

(e) Anyone on the scene ("helping"or obstructing fire fighter?)

(f) Ventilation take place? (by who? what?)

2) Police Officers

3) Emergency Medical Personnel

a) Victims?

b) Transported injured anywhere?

c) Tell them anything? (accusations, information, dying declarations)

4) Others

(d) Observations about the building exterior

1) Type of occupancy

a) Residential

b) Multiple

c) Hospital

d) Commercial

e) Industrial

2) Condition

3) Utilities

4) Construction (wood frame, brick, etc.)

5) Roof type [Shingle (fiberglass, wood shake, tar/gravel, tile)]

6) Obvious damage

7) Vandalism

8) Painting/Graffiti

(e) Observations about the building interior

1) Presence or absence of furnishings (Do they belong in the structure?)

2) Presence or absence of personal property

3) General condition

4) Evidence of other criminal activity

a) Burglary

b) Drugs/narcotics

c) Fireworks manufacture

d) Guns

(f) Observations about the area of origin

1) Observations of physical conditions present at the area

a) Patterns

b) Pours

c) Charring

d) Glass condition

e) Remnants of furnishings

f) Fall-down

g) Wiring condition

h) Devices found

i) Trailers found

(g) Narrative opinion about the origin and cause of the fire (THE ONLY OPINION PERMITTED!)

(h) Listing of physical samples removed

1) Lawyers determine what evidence is

2) Maintain Chain of Custody!

a) As few people as possible handle samples

b) Who took sample

c) Mark the container

d) Indicate where it's stored

(i) Observations about the utilities servicing the building

1) Gas

2) Electric

a) Always inspect fuse or breaker box

(i) Fuses blow or breakers tripped?

--Which ones?

--Any oversized?

(ii) Phone

3) Cable

(j) Major Heat-Producing Sources/Appliances

1) Heating/Air Conditioning

a) What type?

b) Working?

c) Recent service?

2) Water heater/boiler

3) Washer/Dryer

4) Refrigerator

5) Dishwasher

6) Fireplace

(3) Information about owner

(a) Name

(b) Addresses (home, work)

(c) Phone numbers (home, work)

(4) Information about occupant/witnesses

(a) Name

(b) Physical Description

(c) Sex

(d) Age

(e) Addresses (home, work)

(f) Phone numbers (home, work)

(g) Occupation

(h) Synopsis of what the person observed

(5) Insurance data

(a) Company

(b) Policy information

(c) Number, type, amount, recently changed?

(6) Follow-up investigation

(a) Lab results (be sure to get copies of the reports)

(b) Background investigation on suspects/witnesses

(c) Prior fires involving the address and/or the suspect

(d) Information from other agencies:

1) Coroner

2) Sheriff

3) Board of health

4) Fire code violations

b. Interviews/Reports of interviews/statements should include-

(1) Consent to interview

(2) Informational interviews

(a) Taped statements

(b) Circumstantial evidence and statements

(c) Taped interviews to collect information

1) what people observed

2) what people didn't observe

(d) Taped interviews of suspects

1) Miranda warnings required if suspect is in custody (SEE NOTE)

2) Juvenile problems

a) Presence of parent or guardian

b) Opportunity to confer required before any questioning

NOTE: Miranda is required if the interview is custodial, however all circumstances will be considered when deciding whether the interview is "custodial." If the investigation is "focused" on the suspect it is wise to give Miranda. There is a split of legal authority on this issue. Err on the side of providing the suspect with a Miranda warning. AGAIN, CONSULT APPROPRIATE LEGAL COUNSEL FOR THE LAW, POLICIES AND PROCEDURES APPLICABLE IN YOUR JURISDICTION.

c. Diagrams and scene sketches should include-

(1) Rough sketches

(2) Graphic arts diagrams

(3) Maps

(4) Charts

d. Photography and videos should include-

(1) Still photos (best type of photographs since they can be repeatedly used without equipment or special assistance from court personnel)

(a) Enlarge up to 8 inches x 10 inches

(b) Color

(c) Numbered for identification and reference

(2) Slides

(a) Provide dramatic effect

(b) Limited use in some jurisdictions

(c) Practical problems:

1) Require screen and project to use them

2) Court staff must assist with lights, etc.

3) Creates gap in presentation of case

(3) Video

(a) Excellent demonstrative tool

(b) Allows jury to feel they are on the scene

(c) Can show movement

(4) Aerial Photos

e. The Confidentiality of the Arson Investigator Work Product-

Certain elements of the investigative process are not protected or privileged information, but rather available to members of the public and others. These elements include, for instance, public records, the report of the date, time and location of the fire, the type of equipment that responded. Below are some examples of elements of the investigation that have been protected from disclosure in some jurisdictions.

(1) On-going investigation materials

(2) Criminal intelligence data

(3) Known criminals

(4) Suspected criminals

(5) Profiled criminals

(6) Criminals who meet profile criteria


f. Follow-up Interviews-

In the final stage of a comprehensive fire investigation, leads that have been generated are followed up. Follow-up interviews may be needed to:

(1) Rule out any accidental ignition scenario remaining after the scene examination.

(2) Clarify or expand eyewitness accounts of the fire's behavior to permit the investigator to conclude the fire's cause and origin.

(3) Further develop motive, physical evidence or circumstantial evidence.

g. Other important points-

(1) Confrontational interviews should generally only be conducted by police officers.

(2) Consult with the District Attorney's office early and often.

(3) On a daily basis secure all original material in individual case files in a locked file cabinet, including:

(a) Key statements

(b) Miranda cards

(c) Film negatives

(d) Signed consent forms

(4) If copies of statements, maps or other materials are needed in the field, photocopies should be made. Never take original documentation back to the field.

A Legal Perspective The following article underscores the importance of documentation in an arson investigation.

Documentation of the Fire Scene: A Legal Perspective

*This material was excerpted and quoted from "How to Make Love to a Prosecutor" by Peter S. Beering and presented at the 43rd Annual Seminar of the International Association of Arson Investigators, January 1992.

Reprinted with permission.

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