Keeping Yourself Out of the Legal System and in the Station

Jan. 3, 2007
Are you comfortable with making that decision with the lack of fire cause and origin training that most of us firefighters get?

At 3 A.M. on that 30-degree morning after conducting the search, venting the roof, rescuing victims and extinguishing the fire, you are now exhausted both physically and mentally. However, the job is not done. Now as the company officer or acting company officer you must make the call on what caused this fire to occur.

When you make the determination on fire cause and origin, you are responsible for that investigation and you may have to testify in a court of law as to why you made such conclusions. Are you comfortable with making that decision with the lack of fire cause and origin training that most of us firefighters get? Or do you simply list all of your "undetermined" fires as "careless smoking" so you and your crew can get back to dinner, bed, or back to the station to make shift change?

Guidelines for Making the Call

The following are some simple guidelines to assist you in determining the need for an investigator and for you to be comfortable making the cause accidental. These tips should help keep you out of the legal system and in the station.

Most important thing first, ask questions! Speak to the homeowners, property or business owners, employees, tenants, and yes vagrants too.

The homeowner will be able to give you valuable information such as electrical problems, placement of furniture, heat sources, time frames, fire behavior, and possible negligence on their part. Property or business owners can give you information on tenant's rent payment status and occupant house keeping habits. You can also obtain from the property or business owners their own financial situation, including insurance coverage. Inquire about the overall condition of the property and any problems they might have with the structure prior to the fire.

Tenants and/or employees should be asked the same types of questions you would ask the home or property/business owner. In addition to those questions, ask the tenants and/or employee about any tribulations they have had with neighbors, customers, other employees and other possible enemies. If people are using a vacant property for shelter, selling or using drugs, or prostitution, the neighbors are the ones who will know. All of these people can give you copious amounts of valuable information in a short period of time. You just need to ask questions.

The second step is to take all the information you have acquired from everyone you could talk to and take it into the fire scene to see if it all adds up. At the fire scene most of us can determine the room or area of origin. Look around, does the fire damage coincide with the information you have gained by asking questions? If so and the fire is accidental, investigate further to find the most probable heat and fuel source. If the information you have gained does not add up with what you are looking at, or it is an apparent arson job, stop all overhaul operations.

Overhaul Can Damage or Destroy Key Evidence

Overhaul is the investigator's worse adversary. Everything in that structure helps tell the story. Have all non-essential crews step out of the structure, secure the scene, and call for an Investigator. Holding off on overhauling the structure is a hard thing for most of us. Yes, it has to be done, but as long as that ember or small fire is not going to cause the structure or evidence to be destroyed, let it go until the Investigator views the scene and gives you the "OK" to finish overhauling.

The third and final point is to use common sense. Like firefighting, fire investigations are not rocket science. If something looks out of plce, it probably is! If you have a funny feeling that someone is telling a lie he probably is! If things aren't adding up, there is probably a good reason for it!

Finally trust your instincts. If you have any doubt at all on the cause, weather it is incendiary or accidental, do not make one up. This could cause you a lot of unnecessary headaches, so call an Investigator. You might lose a night sleep, go hungry, or make it home late, but that has all been done before. The most important thing is that now you have made an educated, and well-informed decision based on your thorough preliminary Investigation. This will ensure that you keep out of the legal system and in the station.

Captain Scott McClain has been involved in the fire service for over 13 years. His current assignment is the Commanding Officer of the Arson and Environmental Crimes Investigation unit, as well as the joint Fire-Police Bomb Squad with Norfolk Fire-Rescue, located Norfolk VA. The city of Norfolk is home of the worlds largest Naval Base, and the city has a mixed population that reaches over one million during normal working hours.

During his career he as served in the role of firefighter, paramedic, arson investigator, hazardous materials technician, and fire lieutenant, assigned to special operations. You can contact Captain McClain at [email protected].

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