If You Are In The Fire Service You Are An Investigator - Part II

In last month's article we had received the fire call but not yet arrived on the scene. Five areas were identified that the investigator should take into consideration when starting the or her investigation. In this article, I would like you to think about arriving on the scene.

You are first due. It doesn't matter if you arrive in your car or on a fire apparatus. You have arrived at the location of the fire first.

So, what do you do? What do you see? What do you smell? What do you hear? I'm sure many of you have sat in classes and been told to look and listen when you arrive on the scene but what does that really mean.

To the investigator a strong foundation can be gathered from having these questions answered by the firefighters arriving first due. Rescue and extinguishment is your assignment but why not start thinking and acting like investigators if they were to advance the first line in.

What did you see? Sounds like a pretty basic question but, what DID YOU see?

  • Was smoke showing?
  • Was fire showing?
  • Where in the structure was the fire visible?

Now lets think like the investigator. Was the fire showing from the front or rear? If you pull up in front of the building, you might only see smoke coming off the roof. There could be fire blowing out the rear windows. The windows may have already failed or maybe it is a warm day and the owners had the windows open. Maybe the owner doesn't like air conditioning. Maybe it is the winter time and the owner likes fresh air while he runs his portable heater.

If you are to investigate this fire in an intelligent manner you must first find out as much as you can about it. Remember this. Where you see smoke as you step off your apparatus, the situation will change rapidly giving the 2nd and 3rd due a different presentation.

By using our senses we can help find the area where the fire has originated. Most of us know the smell from a fluorescent fixture. Wood smoke smells different then a pot with food on the stove. Once a firefighter gets experience in the different smells, the discovery of the fire will be more quickly.

As we you know, not all fires are blowing out the window when you arrive. So to the investigator, the sense of smell upon arrival can prove to be helpful. Did you ever wonder why you didn't smell anything when you arrived. Sometimes there might not be any smell, not even smoke. Could be the fire and smoke has found a way to travel vertically and will soon be visible at the roof line. Could be the fire is above your entry point and convective currents are pulling the smells away from you.

Have you ever pulled up to a job and the smoke at street level made visibility limited? Maybe the wind is pushing it down or another company working the fire is pushing smoke in your direction.

If this is the case, there is going to be some kind of smell that you might be able to identify that could help the investigator.

Hearing is also important. Dragging your line into the structure, what do you hear? The sounds of people exiting, yelling information to you, screaming because they are scared or hysterical and not speaking a language that you might understand. How about no sounds of people. Just the sounds of glass breaking, the popping of paint and wood expanding from the heat. How about a smoke detector or and alarm system that has activated.

I remember responding to a multiple fatal at 0400 in what appeared from the street to be a two family 2 1/2 story wood frame structure. What the first arriving fire crews found was totally different. The owner had chosen to convert this building into a rooming house turning each room into an apartment. The first due engine captain made the comment to one of the investigators, "They were stacked in there like ants." What he expected to find was totally different than what was presented to him upon his arrival. To complicate his initial attack he had fire and smoke showing from all four sides of the structure with occupants trapped on the second floor.

The investigation found a man was paid to splash gasoline down the common corridor walls and floors as payback for a disagreement between two tenants. Surviving occupants stated they smelled gasoline, went to the common kitchen on the first floor, took pots of water and threw them on the gasoline to dilute it they went back to their rooms to finish playing cards and have another drink. No gasoline was ever detected by the crews advancing there lines into the fire. Why? Could be because everyone wore a mask or the product burnt off before the arrival of the fire units.

Only one positive hit came for gasoline out of approximately 18 samples sent to the lab. It came from under a piece of baseboard located in the common hallway by the kitchen. In this example, you arrive with fire showing from many areas. The experienced firefighter should have a question in his or her mind asking, what is making this fire burn so quickly? How did the fire get so advanced? Why are the occupants hanging out the windows or trapped on the back porches. Why were they not able to get out?

We should train our eyes to look in a wide angle view rather than tunnel vision. See the whole picture. Try to see all three sides if you can while you are pulling your line off the rig. Maybe that side door could be your emergency exit. Try to make a mental note of what you see. Notice where the fire might be dropping down. Is the fire already in the attic or cockloft?

You are an extension of the eyes, ears and nose of the fire investigator. You are the most qualified to understand and observe the total picture.

Don't forget to try before you pry. As firefighters we must gain entry to perform our duties of ventilation, search, rescue and extinguishment.

Because of crime, many entries are strengthened with additional locks. To the investigators it would be a vital part of their case if they were to find out the door was unlocked before you forced your way in. Try turning the knob to see if the door was unlocked. That would be one of the questions you the firefighter might want to answer .

If the door is always locked, why did you find it unlocked. As all of us in the fire service can attest, fire does not only attack the poor. Fire in a upscale neighborhood can just as easily kill the occupants as a fire in a slum. We must train our minds to use our senses to assist in the investigation making each job easier to perform. What I have discussed above is applied to many things we do in our lives. We take our senses for granted yet they help keep us alive each day.

When pulling up to a motor vehicle crash, you the first responder want to understand how the mishap occurred. That information could exist within the crowd that has gathered.

The same applies to fire investigations. In many cases a wealth of information exists at the fire scene. Many eyes have been watching the fire advance. As you extinguish the fire, observers begin to leave. As you pick up your hose lines, use your sense of hearing to listen to what is being said out on the street. Your ability to listen can be a great help to the investigator.

As firefighters we are fortunate to have tools and equipment available to extinguish a fire. Why not put the tools we carry with us all the time to work to aid the investigators.