Pieces of the Puzzle: Preservation at Fire Scenes

Recently I was asked by my deputy chief if I could tell newly promoted officers one thing, what would it be? I quickly replied, “Protect and secure our scene.” Why? Because from day two as a fire investigator, I have taught, lectured and enlightened...


Recently I was asked by my deputy chief if I could tell newly promoted officers one thing, what would it be? I quickly replied, “Protect and secure our scene.” Why? Because from day two as a fire investigator, I have taught, lectured and enlightened (occasionally loudly) about preserving the scene for fire investigations.

I became a fire investigator in 2001. At that time, my department had three 24-hour shift investigators. The on-duty fire investigator responded to all fire calls in the city. This put a fire investigator on scene relatively quickly. On my first shift as a fire investigator we responded to a fire in an unoccupied single-family residence. As I approached the scene, I noted burglary tools in the front yard and pry marks on a window. As I did my 360-degree survey of the exterior of the residence, I could see into the house via the open doors and windows. I noted that the house had been ransacked, and the “V” patterns they taught me about in my NFPA 921 class were on a wall of the living room. My first fire and it’s a burglary/arson! I could not wait to get inside and take pictures and collect evidence so that I could throw someone in jail. This was it, the big time!

Eventually, I was advised that it was safe for me to enter the building. As I walked up to the front door, I noted all of the living room furniture lying in a pile on the front lawn. I then entered the house via the front door. To my shock, I noted the living room wall, with the textbook “V” patterns, stripped of its sheetrock exposing a row of clean wall studs. All of my fire patterns were gone; my investigation compromised. I went outside and met with the company officer of the first due truck company and asked him why they had stripped the sheetrock from the living room. He told me that was where the worst fire damage was. They had to open up the walls because of the fire damage on the sheetrock. I asked him why they removed all of the sheetrock when the wall studs were clean, and he said because fire damage to the sheetrock meant that there could be fire behind it. When I asked why all of the furniture was in the front yard, his response was, “Because it was burned.” The next day, my teaching, lecturing and enlightening about scene preservation began.

Now, let’s fast forward to 2011. Our fire investigations unit is staffed with two 40-hour criminal fire investigators and three part-time origin and cause investigators. The criminal investigators respond to fires during regular business hours, and an on-call investigator covers nights and weekends. Response times can range up to an hour after the incident commander requests an investigator. This has made education of new firefighters and company officers about scene preservation even more important.

I believe most fire investigators think of a fire as a large, burned puzzle with the pieces spread all around a room. As the person who is responsible for putting the puzzle back together, I’m looking for as much help as possible from our fire crews to secure and preserve as many of the pieces of the puzzle as they can, in hopes of a successful origin and cause investigation.

When teaching, I refer to NFPA 921 – Guide for Fire & Explosion Investigations, specifically Chapter 16 Section 3 – “Preservation of the Fire Scene and Physical Evidence,” as a reference when educating our firefighters and company officers about scene preservation and fire investigations. Education about scene preservation occurs three ways. The first is conduct a class with new firefighters, the second is to meet with newly promoted officers, and the last is to educate those who are watching you do your job.

For The Newbies

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