At any point during your career as a fire investigator you will be assigned to investigate an incendiary fire. When the investigator arrives on the scene, information about the incident will be coming from a variety of sources, including police, firefighters, witnesses and the occupants or owner. It is critical to sort all of the information and analyze it properly. During the investigation we must use critical thinking and ask many questions such as, why was this fire was deliberately set? Why was the home, business or vehicle the target of an arsonist? What was the motivation of the arsonist?
Fire investigation is an information and fact gathering process. As fire investigators we need to conduct the origin and cause investigation first. Once the fire has been classified as incendiary we then can use the motive indicators to develop or identify any potential suspects. The motive is defined as the impulse or inner drive that causes a person to act in a certain behavior. Remember that the identification of the motive is not a requirement of the prosecution of arson, but it often helps the case.
The identification of the motive can identify if the fire was a single event of fire setting or a multiple event of fire setting behavior. Repetitive fire setting is broken down into three classifications. The classifications are: serial arson, spree arson and mass arson. Serial arson is as many as three fires set at different locations and each fire has a cooling off period between the sets. Spree arson is as many as three fires at different locations with no cooling off period between sets. Mass arson is multiple fires set at the same time at the same location.
There are six motive classifications that are associated with firesetters:
- Crime concealment
Vandalism - the mischievous or malicious act of firesetting that causes damage to property.
These types of fires are usually set to abandoned/vacant buildings, vehicles, brush and educational facilities and will be set to cover up other crimes such as burglary or theft. These types of fires are usually the result of peer pressure or some type of gang initiation. Vandalism fires are mostly caused by the juvenile offender. For instance, some fires that I have investigated were located in schools and the areas surrounded by the school, mostly trash cans and brush fires. These juveniles were placed in a juvenile firesetter program and achieved great results.
Excitement - this type of fire is set by the thrill-seeking arsonist for excitement, recognition and attention. There are some rare occasions that the fire is set for sexual gratification.
These types of fires can range from brush fires to occupied structures. The arsonist will usually set these fires in a geographic location that is familiar to them and may remain at the scene. It is not uncommon that the firesetter may photograph or video the fire. The investigator will gain valuable information that may be used at a later date by photographing the crowd and spectators at the scene.
Included in this classification are security guards, night watchmen and members of the fire service. Security guards may be the first to discover the fire and are looking for praise and recognition. The firefighter arsonist can be a volunteer or career member of the fire service. They may set fires to show the need for more firefighters, to be the hero, or are seeking praise and recognition. Firefighter arsonists are a small percentage of firefighters and should be prosecuted with no exceptions.
Revenge - this type of fire is retaliation for a real or perceived injustice. This type of fire can result in deadly consequences.
Targets of the retaliation can be a person, institutional facility, societal or a group. Revenge fires directed at people are often the result of a fight or disagreement. The revenge firesetter will set a fire to the victims home, vehicle or possessions. The offender may be identified by the location of the area of origin and the materials involved in the fire. The fires that are located in the bedroom are usually in the closet or the area of the bed.
The items used to set the fire are most likely clothing and ordinary combustibles. If a fire on the bed is discovered make sure you identify the type of clothes and sizes. This will give you a good indicator of the firesetter's gender. There may be history of an affair or domestic violence. Due to the extreme emotional state of the arsonist the attack is usually unsophisticated and unorganized.
The institutional firesetter will target corporations, medical, religious and education facilities. A former employee, disgruntled employee or patient may be the arsonist. The societal firesetter feels that they have to strike out at society. This type of firesetter feels loneliness and persecution and is not satisfied with just one fire.
Crime Concealment - is an attempt to conceal another type of crime such as murder, burglary, or an attempt to destroy documents or records by fire. The arsonist believes that all of the physical evidence or the identity of the victim will be destroyed in the fire. Fires will indeed destroy some evidence of the crime; however guns, knives and bullets will survive a fire to some degree.
With vehicle fires victims have been located in the passenger and cargo compartment, so make sure you investigate these areas. It is important for the investigator to remember that any crime that is committed can be covered up with an intenionaly set fire.
Profit - the profit motivated fire is set for a monetary gain or material gain.
The arsonist may set fire to escape financial obligations, increase property values, commit insurance fraud, or to intimidate or eliminate business competition. Some jurisdictions fail to investigate vehicle fires; this is a big mistake. A person who can't afford the lease or payments on their vehicle may report it stolen and set it on fire. This is done to get out of the financial obligations or collect the insurance payment.
Fraud is often identified as a motive for arson. When hard economic times are felt by owners of private property and businesses, the owners may feel like the only way to get out from under the finance problems are to burn the property or business. Fraud is broken down into two categories, residential and commercial.
Residential fraud is the type of fire set by the homeowner or tenant with the expectation of defrauding the insurance carrier. There are many reasons that a homeowner or land lord may burn the property. There may be an inability to rent the property or increasing taxes and physical deteriorations. Commercial fraud may be used by the owner to destroy records, old equipment, and for the purpose to collect insurance payouts. When conducting the origin and cause investigations make it a point to check the stock and office area for items that have been removed prior to the fire. These fires may be used by members of organized crime to create intimidation and committ extortion.
Extremism - extremist firesetting is used to further political, social, or religious causes. These firesetters may work as individuals or as groups. The extremist arsonist takes time selecting the target and is very organized. The use of elaborate incendiary or ignition devices are not uncommon. Extremism is broken down into two categories: terrorism and riot or civil disturbance.
Terrorism is used to create fear, confusion and anarchy. Targets selected by the terrorists are selected with a degree of economic or political significance. Targets can range from government offices, military bases, universities, fire and police headquarters, and power plants or port terminals. Riot or civil disturbance fires are set during riots and are often accompanied by looting and vandalism. These types of incidents usually occur after a high profile incident, court proceeding, or sports event.
As fire investigators, when we are conducting the origin and cause investigation we are trying to seek the truth. Once the investigator identifies the motive we can evaluate suspects for the arson fire. Remember the six motive classifications of the firesetter. I'm sure at some point in your career you will be required to speak about them in court. Remember that the identification of the motive is not a requirement in the prosecution of arson, but it often helps the case. Remember to network with other investigators, especially if they border your city. Your firesetter may be the same person.
- NFPA 921, Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations. 2008 ed. Quincy, MA: National Fire Protection Association, 2008. Print.
- Kirk, P. L., & DeHaan, J. D. (2007). Kirk's fire investigation. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.
ROBERT DISBROW JR. is a 21-year veteran of the fire service. He is a career firefighter/investigator with the City Of Bayonne, NJ, Fire Department and also conducts origin and cause investigations for a forensic engineering firm based in New Jersey. He is a life member of the Laurelton Fire Co. # 1 and a fire commissioner for the Howell Township Fire District # 1. He holds an associate degree in fire science and is a certified fire and explosion investigator (CFEI). He is also certified as a fire inspector, hazardous material specialist, fire instructor and juvenile firesetter intervention specialist and has been investigating fires for the past 15 years. He can be reached via e-mail at: [email protected].