Fire Investigations 101: On Scene Basics
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OWNER/MANAGER F.ancis L. Hunter C1100286 (352) 816-7609 email@fhipi.com
Angie Sweeney Even before getting the call to investigate a fire make sure all of your tools are clean. Or use new ones to eliminate the possibility of cross contamination from a previous case. The bare minimum needed for this type of investigation: Safety equipment (always first):  hard hat, gloves both work gloves and nitrile rubber gloves to wear under the work gloves this gives you a protective barrier from body fluids and other liquids, respiratory protection, eye protection, boots with puncture proof soles. Tools: flat shovel, assorted screw drivers, wire cutters, carpet cutters, evidence cans (non-lined), sharpie (to write on evidence cans, camera with new CD card and fresh batteries and flash, pen and paper to take notes and do sketches, tape measure, and a flashlight. Never go into an investigation with a pre-conceived idea that this fire was arson. To determine arson each and every potential accidental cause must be looked at and eliminated, such as electrical, smoking, candle, lightning strike, or even human error. Ensure the person that hires you to do the investigation has ownership in the home. You must have authority by the owner, bank or insurance company to access the scene and to remove any evidence. A neighbor or concerned citizen cannot grant you legal access. Once on the scene, remember your safety is first and foremost, before you do anything else take a long walk around the entire scene. Look for any potential safety issue; note where LP tank(s) are located, gas lines, electrical lines, electric meters, extension cords, animals, condition of actual building or vehicle. Most of the safety issue will have already been secured by the fire department if they responded but don’t assume everything is shut off disconnected, etc. until you verify for yourself. When I do my safety walk around I am also looking for anything that may be important for the investigation. For sale sign in front yard, a gas can in the weeds, a dropped lighter, foot prints, tire marks, ways in and out of the property, evidence of animals (chains, dog houses, etc.). Now it is time to grab your camera. As you do another walk around take pictures of everything. You need pictures of all 4 side of the building or vehicle. I always go around clockwise and call the front of the subject a side A as I go around side B, side C would be the rear of the building and then side D. No matter which direction or labeling you do, be consistent with every investigation you do. You also want to take pictures of: were the electrical service enters the home, where any gas lines/tanks are located, the position of the valves on tanks, the meter can, and anything else you think may come up later, the joys of having digital cameras you can take tons of pictures. Tons of pictures are a good thing since the structure will not be there much longer as it gets torn down or renovated. You will be talking to neighbors and firefighters later on. It is better to look at the actual scene prior to talking to anyone and getting tunnel vision due to a statement. This paper is just going to be about boots on the ground at the fire scene in the ashes. Now look at and take pictures of all of the exterior doors (if any remain), was the dead bolt engaged? Is there any pry marks. Look at and take pictures of all the windows, are they all sooted up, broken from the inside is the aluminum frame melted on the top or bottom? Remember a lot of the damage could have been caused by the fire department such as forced entry and broken windows for ventilation. Inside you want to take pictures just like you did on the outside. Views of all 4 side of each room, make sure you get pictures of all the outlets and switches. This will be very important if the case goes to court you can verify that you looked at all of them and either ruled out or is an area of interest. If you miss rooms or electrical connections an attorney will have tons of fun with you and you will have no way to prove you did look at everything. Pictures of the breaker box closed and opened to show the fuses or breakers as you find it and after you remove the panel  cover to show the condition of the wiring inside the box. Take pictures of all appliances and the condition of the dials/switches. Were they plugged in, on at the time of the fire. Were there clothes in the washer or dryer. What in the kitchen was plugged in, coffee pot, toaster, etc. what in the bathroom was plugged in, hair dryer, iron, etc. Do this in every room for any appliance, it is important to note/show if they were in use or not. Remember if it was plugged in it could fail, the appliance/equipment does not need to be powered on just plugged in to cause a fire. Take note and pictures of contents or lack of, furniture, clothes, picture, guns, electronics, food, evidence of pets, etc. If the homeowner/renter set the fire they may have removed some of these things before the fire. Most people do not want to burn up family pictures, pets, or all of their clothes. Later on when you talk to them and they advise they had a 60” TV and all you found was evidence of a small TV, you already have them in a lie. Again the more pictures you take the better it will be for everyone. Once you get to the possible area of origin, before you start digging and moving things around make sure you have taken enough pictures to show what the area looked like before you started digging.  When you start digging make sure you have your camera handy. Take pictures as you go, as you take levels of debris out and start restoring the area you want to have pictures showing the different looks and to show how you restored the area as much as possible to show burn patterns. To sum up, your safety is always priority and you can never take too many pictures. Document, document and then document some more.
Francis L. Hunter INVESTIGATIONS “We Are Not Satisfied Until You Are!” FHI