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...


I am given a four-hour block in our recruit academies to explain to our new firefighters how important their observations and actions are to a successful fire investigation. It is important to teach them about making mental notes throughout an incident, specifically, what questions the fire investigators will be asking and will expect answers for when you get on scene. What did they see when they got on scene? Was there someone watching them, or was someone running from the area? Did anyone approach you and did they say anything to you? What did the structure or scene look like? What color was the smoke? Where did you see fire? Did you see anything in the yard, such as a gas cans, portable ignition devices, or burglary tools, as you approached the fire scene?

Once they made it to their entry point, did they force the door open? If not, was it because the door was unlocked or already broken? If you forced entry did you have a hard time gaining access? Did you encounter any obstacles that impeded your progress once you gained access to your scene? Did they break open a window to ventilate, or was it already broken? Recruit firefighters should be reminded to make a mental note of any door or window lock that they have manipulated for a door or window within a structure.

When they started the fire attack, the Investigator will want to know what the fire’s behavior was when they directed a hoseline at the fire. Did the fire darken down or keep flaring up when they shut down the hoseline? Recruit firefighters need to know that prompt control and extinguishment of a fire will help in the preservation of a fire scene, and aid in a positive outcome in the fire investigation. Remind them that the excessive use of water (especially in a straight stream pattern) can move or wash away physical evidence. Hoseline usage should be limited once the fire is under control.

It is also important to talk to recruit firefighters about the movement of switches and knobs. If they are tasked with shutting off the power at the electrical panel, they should only shut off the master breaker, or, if it is necessary, turn off individual breakers, but remember to mark the breakers that are in the tripped position. Ask them to not touch or move light switches, items plugged into outlets, and knobs for gas or propane appliances, unless it is necessary to get the fire under control.

Newly Promoted Officers

While speaking with newly promoted company officers, I explain the importance of limiting overhaul and debris removal to only what is needed to get the fire under control. I talk to them about controlling the actions of new (or overzealous) firefighters. Does the sheetrock on the entire wall need to be removed, or will inspection holes suffice? I explain the importance of allowing the fire investigator into the scene to get a preliminary look at the fire scene, as well as taking preliminary photographs of the scene prior to overhaul operations beginning. If it is allowed within your department operating guidelines or procedures, ask company officers to do overhaul and debris removal in a controlled manner, preferably with the fire investigator monitoring so key evidence is not damaged or removed.

Also, instruct company officers about the importance of staging or fueling gas-powered tools away from the scene. When fueling of tools is necessary, make sure that firefighters do this with care and prevent spillage as much as possible. If fuel gets on firefighters boots or equipment, make sure they are rinsed prior to allowing them back onto the scene to prevent cross contamination, and then ask the company officer to document if they use a fuel-powered tool within the fire scene.

Observers

Lastly, but most importantly, take the time to talk to those firefighters and company officers who are watching you process a scene. This invaluable training opportunity will allow those firefighters and company officers to see first hand what you are looking for during your investigation and how their actions, or inactions, affect your investigation and the potential outcome. If possible, walk the first-arriving firefighters through the scene and have them explain what they saw as they arrived on scene. Have them explain their initial actions regarding securing utilities, gaining access, and ventilating. Explain to them what you are doing and why it is necessary. Tell them the importance of their due diligence when completing fire suppression and overhaul operations prior to your investigation. Educate them when you believe things could be done differently, and acknowledge their good work when they have preserved and protected your scene.