Establishing an Effective Fire Investigation Unit

Most if not all fire agencies across the United States continue to encounter ongoing financial turbulence. During these challenges, difficult business decisions are made by managers of the local government.

In making most decisions, managers must consider the mission at hand. In smaller fire agencies, fire origin and cause investigation is one division that may fall by the wayside, especially during tough expenditure reductions. We must remember that our overall mission of protecting life, property and the environment includes accurate classification of fire cause, authoring comprehensive fire-investigation reports, providing expert testimony and the like. Chief officers need information that can help them make decisions on establishing and maintaining an effective fire-investigation unit.

Establishing an effective unit for smaller fire departments isn't as difficult or costly as one would think. In doing so, consider these categories:

  • Personnel and coverage
  • Equipment and supplies
  • Training
  • Other resources

The need for conducting fire investigations stems not only from the International Fire Code (section 104.10); it's also a necessity from a public-safety perspective to prevent future fires. The key is for a fire investigation to be done in a competent manner, withstanding both legal and scientific scrutiny.

Personnel and Coverage

Many fire departments haven't designated any people as fire investigators; the reasons may range from a lack of human or monetary resources to a lack of interest. This may result in a company officer having to bear the responsibility of making the call about a classification of fire cause, material first ignited, ignition source, fire development and so on—all while at the fire scene.

But how can someone determine a fire classification if they can't properly establish the fire's origin? This would include ruling out other hypotheses through the proper use of the scientific method, pursuant to NFPA 921 and the scientific community as a whole.

If a well-intended company officer isn't comfortable with this role, a fire cause may be classified as undetermined to err on the side of caution. This determination can range from an overall lack of knowledge to fear of legal repercussions in making the wrong determination. As a result, fires that may have been incendiary (arson) may continue to go undetected and accidental fires may continue to occur—both potentially having dire consequences for your community's safety.

When establishing your investigators, the coverage can be very simple and flexible. The smaller the department, the easier it becomes. This is primarily due to having fewer fires to investigate. Thus, the ability for someone to be on call more often and for longer periods of time is permissible.

Smaller fire departments can easily tolerate having two trained individuals on call one at a time until they either switch or trade coverage. These investigators can come from ranks within fire prevention, training, administration or operations. For safety reasons, no investigator should ever work a scene alone. Technically, only one person needs to be on call at a time, as the other person assisting the investigator could be from an engine company, a reserve/paid call firefighter or a law-enforcement officer.

Another option for coverage is where the person on call is part of an on-duty shift investigation program. In this scenario, the fire apparatus they work on may remain on scene with the investigator during the fire origin and cause investigation.

Equipment and Supplies

Equipment and supplies can be very simple and inexpensive to begin an investigative team. At a minimum, safety gear (for example, structure boots, helmet, flashlight and an approved air-purifying respirator), a dedicated assortment of shovels and hand tools, sifting screens, portable lighting and a good camera with flash will work.

Training

The needed training can be obtained through various outlets and organizations. For liability reasons, updated and formal training must come from recognized sources. This is vital to prevent wrongful findings and ultimately a wrongful prosecution for arson when the fire was actually accidental.

There are many outlets for recognized training. For a good foundation, draw from several sources; some of these sources—some of which are free—include:

  • State Fire Marshal's office
  • National Fire Academy
  • National Insurance Crime Bureau
  • Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives
  • National Association of Fire Investigators
  • International Association Arson Investigators (IAAI) and CFItrainer.net, IAAI's distance-learning program
  • Public Agency Training Council

Along with taking classes as part of your education in fire investigations, written resources can be obtained as part of a reference library. Here's a partial list of fire-investigation publications to consider:

  • NFPA 921, Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigation
  • NFPA 1033, Standard for Professional Qualifications for Fire Investigator
  • Kirks Fire Investigation, by John DeHaan and David Icove
  • Fire Dynamics, by Gregory E. Gorbett and James L. Pharr
  • Fire Investigator, by the International Fire Service Training Association
  • Fire Investigation, by Russell Chandler

Other Resources

Collaborating with your local law-enforcement agency provides an excellent opportunity for sharing investigative resources. Working with consistent law-enforcement officers and cross training with each other can increase both groups' overall knowledge and skills on fire and arson investigations.

Law-enforcement officers bring extensive experience in conducting witness and suspect interviews and understand the complexity of the laws regulating such interviews. They're also very good at documenting a scene, collecting and preserving evidence and understanding the intricate laws related to these important tasks. They also have the ability and technical knowledge of how and when to obtain search and arrest warrants as needed.

Moving Forward

Once a few members of your department have received investigative training and have established an on-call schedule, you can find your department in a position to effectively investigate fires. Also, assisting neighboring fire agencies with their origin and cause investigations can help bring practical exposure to complement the training classes for your new investigators.

Justin Gipson, deputy fire chief and fire marshal, directs the fire prevention and investigative division for the Chula Vista (Calif.) Fire Department. He's credentialed by the National Association of Fire Investigators (NAFI) and the California State Fire Marshal's Office as a certified fire and explosion investigator. Matt Smith, a detective with the Chula Vista Police Department, investigates arson and financial crimes. He's credentialed by NAFI as a certified fire and explosion investigator.

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