First Responder Fire Investigations

Fred Herrera discusses the importance of fire investigation and determination of cause.


Investigating the cause of a fire is a routine function of fire departments nationwide. A fire investigation and determination of cause are important for two primary reasons: there are deliberately set fires and persons who should be held responsible for the arson crime, and there may be trends...


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Investigating the cause of a fire is a routine function of fire departments nationwide. A fire investigation and determination of cause are important for two primary reasons: there are deliberately set fires and persons who should be held responsible for the arson crime, and there may be trends identified in accidental fires that cause awareness or a manufacturer's recall of a faulty component. These two aspects of fire cause are responsible for many firefighter and civilian injuries and deaths. By accurately determining the cause of a fire, the company officer is fulfilling a task that will translate into a safer society in which to live.

The Uniform Fire Code (UFC) grants fire departments the authority to investigate the cause of fires that they extinguish. UFC Section 104.2 states, "The fire department is authorized to investigate promptly the cause, origin and circumstances of each and every fire occurring in the jurisdiction involving loss of life or injury to person or destruction or damage to property and, if it appears to the bureau of investigation that such fire is of suspicious origin, they are authorized to take immediate charge of all physical evidence relating to the cause of the fire and are authorized to pursue the investigation to its conclusion."

Prior versions of the UFC used the language "shall" instead of "is authorized" regarding the investigation of fires. This may have been the result of the emergence of dedicated fire investigation units, whose fire investigations are usually more comprehensive than the investigation performed by the first responder. The issue of whether a fire department was required to utilize its dedicated fire investigators for all fires due to the language in the UFC may have presented the potential for liability for fire investigations performed at the engine company level.

This is not to suggest that fire investigators assigned to engine companies, effectively multi-tasking, are as qualified as a full-time fire investigator. The comparison is to the company officer, whose primary duty is the suppression of the fire, with the need to determine cause for the statistical documentation required for all fire responses.

Right of Entry

A fire scene is entered by fire personnel under exigent circumstances, meaning that an emergency is occurring and there is no time to obtain the consent of the occupant or a court order. A part of the fire operations, or exigency, is the need to determine the cause of the fire for public safety. When the exigency is gone, there is no longer a right to enter. Any entries made after the exigency must be conducted under other means of entry; consent, administrative search warrant, criminal search warrant or abandonment.

  • Michigan v. Tyler. This U.S. Supreme Court decision involving a fire in a furniture store stated that an investigation may continue for a "reasonable period of time" after the suppression of the fire without the need for a criminal or administrative warrant. This is somewhat subjective, but an example would be postponing an investigation to wait for daylight or to stabilize an unsafe structure.

Investigative Procedures

The recognized procedure for conducting an origin-and-cause investigation is the scientific method, which is a systematic approach to information gathering and analysis, with a resulting tested hypothesis. This is the basis for nearly all scientific inquiries and is not nearly as complicated as it seems.

The steps of the scientific method are:

On the fire scene the first three steps are completed by receiving the request to respond from the incident commander, systematically examining the scene from the least damage to the heaviest damage, and interviewing firefighters and witnesses. This hopefully provides enough data to develop a hypothesis, or opinion, on where the fire started and what caused the fire to occur in this location. By testing the hypothesis; using the behavior of fire and witness statements, a final hypothesis, or opinion, may be determined. In some cases, the test may include laboratory testing, other scientific procedures, or a more comprehensive investigation.

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