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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 (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

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.

By taking the time to properly train recruit firefighters, update newly promoted company officers, and talking to the firefighters who are watching you process your scene, you will be able to instill good scene-preservation practices and in the end help you collect the evidence needed to prepare a thorough and complete fire investigation that you can stand behind in a court of law.

HUNTER L. HACKBARTH is a 21-year veteran of the fire service and a fire investigations captain with the Aurora, CO, Fire Department. Hackbarth has been a fire investigator since 2001 and is an International Association of Arson Investigators - Certified Fire Investigator and a State of Colorado Peace Officer. He can be reached at hhackbarth@hotmail.com.

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