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The Team Concept: Duties and Responsibilities

Implementing the "team concept" as illustrated in this chart has been shown to be the most complete and efficient method for a systematic and thorough fire investigation. Putting the team concept into practice requires the local fire investigator to build an effective investigatory team by taking a fresh look at the resources already in place in the community, county, state, and nation and seeking out new resources. When creating a fire investigation plan for your community, fully explore all available resources and personnel, including the municipal police department, sheriff's department, state police or state criminal investigation bureau, State Fire Marshal's Office, and ATF Field Office. Making these contacts not only adds individuals to the team, but also brings all of their agency's resources to bear, such as an affiliated forensic accountant, a public records database, a well-equipped crime scene technician, or a list of approved forensic laboratories. After bringing all the pertinent agencies to the table and securing commitment, define each agency and individual's role in the fire investigation and how each will execute their duties.

The investigation of a fire can involve a team as small as two or as large as fifty or more, depending on the incident and on available resources. The exact composition of the team will be defined by the resources available. Therefore, specific individual roles will be determined on a case-by-case basis. Although the specific task assignments will differ, the duties that must be discharged at the fire scene remain the same.

Even if your team consists of only a fire investigator and a police officer, you can follow the model outlined here and efficiently assign duties and properly carry out all investigative tasks. For larger teams, the coordination of duties can be facilitated through a team leader.

Team Leadership is responsible for the overall conduct of the investigation, including the safety of all personnel.

Team Leadership Duties

1. Select and assemble personnel/equipment and coordinate with other jurisdictions.

2. Conduct scene overview.

3. Determine and establish scene integrity, security, and safety.

4. Establish command post and media control.

5. Conduct scene walkthrough with team members investigating Origin and Cause and handling Forensics.

6. Coordinate all personnel and search patterns.

7. Assign Immediate Area Search and Investigative personnel.

8. Assign General Area Search and Investigative personnel.

9. Manage, evaluate, and finalize search and investigative actions.

10. Conduct final scene evaluation conferences.

Origin and Cause Investigation concentrates on determining the area or areas where the fire started and how the fire was ignited. Elimination of accidental causes and pursuit of evidence of incendiary cause fall within this duty.

Origin and Cause Investigation Duties

1. Select and assemble equipment.

2. Accompany Team Leadership on walkthrough in order to provide a technical evaluation and assessment of fire scene.

3. Establish scene parameters.

4. Identify area of fire origin.

5. Assist the General and Immediate Area Search personnel by providing emerging details about the scene so they can feed it into their interviews.

6. Technically evaluate investigative information and recovered materials.

7. Determine whether incident was incendiary or accidental, including ruling out all accidental causes.

8. Reconstruct the sequence of events and physical evidence.

9. Provide technical briefings.

10. Prepare statement regarding technical determination.

The Immediate Area Investigation interviews all witnesses directly related to the scene, including owners, occupants, employees, persons who discovered the fire, first responding fire fighters, passerby rescuers, and others with direct knowledge of the incident.

Immediate Area Investigation Duties

1. Select and assemble investigative equipment.

2. Interview local officers, firefighters, and all possible witnesses at scene.

3. Determine the owner of the property, the victim of the fire, and if any persons were injured in the fire.

4. Obtain names of any persons that are normally on the premises, such as employees, security guards, or janitors.

5. Provide the names and location of all persons or groups who should be interviewed to the interviewers. This list will include the injured persons who were taken to a hospital or rescue workers who have departed from the scene.

6. Record descriptions and time of sounds, color of smoke, and any odors noticed by witnesses.

7. Question the witnesses and record facts pertaining to the general activity at the scene prior to the fire.

8. Question the witnesses and record facts pertaining to anything unusual about the activity or any facts concerning persons, vehicles, sounds, odors, prior to and during the fire. Record descriptions and time of sounds, color of smoke, and any odors noticed by witnesses.

9. Reconstruct the immediate area activity. Work with origin and cause investigation, feeding information from witnesses.

10. Alert team leadership to information given by witnesses, for example, whether a window was open or closed.

The General Area Investigation interviews persons who may not have direct knowledge of the fire scene, but might have details about the people, the property, or the events surrounding the fire. This would include responsibilities like conducting the neighborhood canvass.

General Area Investigation Duties

1. Select and assemble investigative equipment.

2. Review maps and evaluate ingress and egress and select a systematic pattern for canvassing the area.

3. Search area of ingress and egress for associative evidence, such as footprints, tire tracks, torn clothing, blood, hair, fingerprints, or other evidence that may relate to a suspect(s).

4. Search surrounding areas that may have received fire damage and document.

5. Determine possibility of delivery people being in the area and make a list of their names and addresses for follow-up interviews.

6. Canvass neighborhood for witnesses. Take contact information and interview.

7. Canvass business premises that may be related to ingress and egress, such as all-night service stations, cafes, taverns, and toll bridges. Inquire about security cameras, tickets, and other methods of tracking individuals.

8. Prepare a suspect list with necessary facts relating to the investigation.

9. Record descriptions of suspects, suspect vehicles, and suspect premises for future use.

10. Check sources of evidence recovered at the crime scene.

11. Check items and buildings in the surrounding area for possible connection to the fire, such as a discarded flammable liquid bottle. Mark these locations for the team members responsible for Photography and Schematics.

12. Alert team leadership to any potential areas of evidence, such as where a car was parked at the time of the incident, and any information gained from the canvass.

Photography completely documents the scene and evidence collected.

Photography Duties

1. Select and assemble equipment.

2. Photograph immediate and general area including victims, crowd, and vehicles.

3. Photograph team operations.

4. Photograph area of origin and damage showing measurements.

5. Photograph evidence as found.

6. Photograph immediate and general area from aerial perspective.

7. Take scene reconstruction photographic series.

8. Secure blueprints, maps, and previous photos of the scene, if available and necessary.

9. Photograph known or potential suspects.

10. Identify additional photographic needs with all scene investigators.

Schematics draws diagrams to describe the layout and measurements of the scene and the location of collected evidence.

Schematics Duties

1. Select and assemble equipment.

2. Diagram immediate fire area.

3. Diagram general area.

4. Identify evidence found by indicating the assigned evidence numbers on the evidence control sketch showing location found.

5. Show necessary measurements of heights, lengths, and widths.

6. Make artist's conception of scene prior to fire with the help of witnesses showing where furniture was arranged or how the structure was before the fire.

7. Prepare a legend on the diagrams.

8. Inventory collected evidence with the team member handling evidence and ensure that all evidence is noted on the control sketch.

9. Properly mark and identify the evidence control sketch and other diagrams for proper court presentation.

10. Coordinate with the Team Leader and other investigators.

Evidence Collection responsibilities include evidence identification, documentation, collection, labeling, preservation, and maintaining a chain of custody.

Evidence Collection Duties

1. Select and assemble collection equipment.

2. Prepare evidence control log and set up evidence collection point.

3. Measure and record the area of origin and the location of all collected items contained within it, coordinating with Schematics.

4. Collect all evidence directed by investigators. Retain necessary control samples.

5. Properly package, label, and store evidence.

6. Record all properly marked and packaged evidence on the evidence control log.

7. Maintain custody and control of collected evidence at the scene.

8. Verify collected evidence with evidence control log before departing the scene.

9. Document the chain of custody and provide temporary storage.

10. Prepare laboratory analysis requests and transmit evidence to the laboratory.

Specialized Forensics tasks may be required at a scene where there has been a fatality or where there is hazardous or delicate evidence like body fluids or hair. Forensics tasks may include determining a preliminary cause of death, collecting evidence from a body, and searching for trace evidence.

Forensics Duties

1. Select and assemble equipment.

2. Conduct preliminary walkthrough of scene with Team Leadership and team member responsible for Origin and Cause Investigation.

3. Assist Team Leadership in evaluating the situation and discuss the method of approach.

4. Assist General Area Search personnel where appropriate.

5. Assist Immediate Area Search personnel.

6. Coordinate with Federal, State and/or local laboratory personnel as appropriate.

7. Act as technical advisor for all laboratory-oriented questions arising at the scene.

8. Conduct field tests where appropriate.

9. Assist the team member handling Evidence and the Team Leadership in the evaluation of collected evidence.

10. Assist the team member handling Evidence with proper packaging for submission to the laboratory.

The Follow-Up Investigation should be conducted after the scene has been processed. It can include looking into financial, insurance, personal, and civic records to support the cause determination . If a crime has been committed, the follow-up investigation will concentrate on identifying evidence of participation and establishing a case.

Follow-Up Investigation

1. Coordinate with on-scene team members for case briefing.

2. Review all case materials, including photographs, witness statements, lab reports and the like.

3. Based on cause determination made at scene, create appropriate follow-up investigation plan.

4. Follow-up all leads generated on-scene, including re-interviewing, fact-checking, and corroborating statements.

5. Work with laboratory personnel to interpret lab findings and order additional tests if necessary.

6. Coordinate with necessary information-yielding organizations like insurance companies, police departments, and government agencies.

7. If accidental fire is determined, report product or system faults to appropriate regulatory and consumer-protection agencies.

8. If incendiary fire is determined, spearhead investigation into motive, including interpersonal, financial, and insurance, and evidence of participation.

9. Maintain case records through trial phase, if necessary, and help expert witnesses prepare for trial.

Although the team concept is the best approach to fire scene investigation, there is a tendency to overlook its implementation because of a perceived lack of available resources. This is unfortunate. No matter how many assets are available, the outlined nine investigative duty areas need to be considered, assigned, carried out at the scene, and documented. Consolidating the tasks or taking on multiple roles may be necessary given your team structure, but none of these duty areas should be neglected. In addition, these duties and tasks should be assigned ahead of time so that the system can function smoothly when a fire needs to be investigated. This planning and coordination will save time and improve quality at the fire scene. Although this task may seem difficult at the beginning, the responsibilities and coordination outlined here will flow naturally once you have started the process and think proactively about fire investigation.

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