In this month’s column, we will discuss the fire officer’s responsibility in assisting the fire investigation units at the scene. Many times the fire department is the first agency to arrive at the incident and the actions taken by the officers and the members of the fire suppression companies can either help or hinder the investigation. Indicators of an incendiary fire can be detected by officers and firefighters by being alert and making observations. The officers and firefighters are the investigator’s eyes and ears prior to his or her arrival. The fire may be in an area or district that the investigator is not familiar with and the company officer may be able to provide the investigator with a wealth of information. The building or area may have been the site of previous fires and a pattern of firesetting may be starting to develop. The relationship between the fire investigation unit and the fire suppression companies is critical to the outcome of the investigation.
Size-up and Outside Observations
It’s important to remember the fire inspections or pre-plans that your company has done over the years in your district. The information gained from previous inspections is invaluable. During inspections, your company is able to become familiar with the type of construction, fire protection systems, interior layout and building services, and any hazards associated with the occupancy.
Here is an example of how important inspections are. Early in my career, I was working for a fire bureau as an inspector and inspected a clothing business three times. The business had a number of minor violations that were cited and all violations were abated in a few weeks. The business had a triangle floor display that was approximately four-feet wide and six-feet high and was used for customers to stand behind and try on clothes. A few months after my inspections, a fire was reported in the rear office of the store and the contents were destroyed. I was on the first due engine and our crew made the initial interior attack. The triangle floor display was placed in a location to prevent the fire department from gaining access to the rear of the structure. During the trial, I testified to this fact. Before the end of the trial, the owner of the store admitted to intentionally setting the fire.
Fire officers and firefighters that arrive first at the scene are in an excellent position to make critical observations for an investigator who is not on the scene. When the fire is reported, all officers conduct a size-up. Size-up is an evaluation of conditions and problems that affect the outcome of the incident. This size-up begins the moment the alarm is transmitted. Remember, that size-up is an information-gathering process.
During the response, be observant of any automobiles or persons leaving the scene or acting in a suspicious manner. This is especially important if the fire is in an isolated area. The fire officer should try to get a description of the vehicle and occupants. Note any blocked or any damaged fire hydrants or blocked access to the scene. Note the way the occupants are dressed. If it’s three in the morning and everyone is fully dressed and the structure is fully involved ask yourself why. Make sure you note any comments by the occupants or bystanders. Make sure you scan the crowd or bystanders and look for familiar faces. Remember, in some cases the firesetter remains at the scene. The fire officer should have knowledge of the six firesetter motive classifications that I referenced in my previous article on Firehouse.com in December 2010.