A Guide for Investigating Fire and Arson: Arriving at the Fire and/or Arson Scene

First responders to a fire scene must assess and secure the scene and ensure that victims receive medical attention.

Observe the fire and scene conditions. First responders at a fire scene must observe conditions and activities and provide investigators with an accurate and complete description.

While approaching a fire scene, first responders should observe and mentally note the following conditions and activities and initiate permanent documentation of the information (e.g., written notes, voice recordings and videotapes):

  • The presence, location and condition of victims and witnesses.
  • Vehicles leaving the scene, bystanders or unusual activities near the scene.
  • Flame and smoke conditions (e.g., the volume of flames and smoke; the color, height and location of the flames; the direction in which the flames and smoke are moving).
  • The first public safety personnel to arrive on the scene, whether they are law enforcement professionals, firefighters, or emergency medical services (EMS) personnel.
  • The type of occupancy and use of the structure (e.g., a residential occupancy being used as a business).
  • Conditions of the structure (e.g., lights turned on; fire through the roof; walls standing; open, closed, or broken windows and doors).
  • Conditions surrounding the scene (e.g., blocked driveways, debris, damage to other structures).
  • Weather conditions.
  • Unusual characteristics of the scene (e.g., the presence of containers, exterior burning or charring on the building, the absence of normal contents, unusual odors, fire trailers [physical trails of fuel and the burn patterns caused by those trails]).
  • The fire suppression techniques used.
  • The status of fire alarms, security alarms and sprinklers.

Exercise scene safety. Safety overrides all other concerns. First responders must make sure that victims, bystanders, and public safety personnel are safe. This involves mitigating safety hazards that may further threaten victims, bystanders, and public safety personnel. They must exercise due caution to avoid injuries to themselves and others.

First responders should:

  • Evaluate the scene for safety hazards (e.g., structural collapse of the building; smoke; electrical, chemical or biological hazards; other health risks).
  • Establish safety/hazard zones.
  • Communicate hazards to other personnel arriving at the scene.
  • Use tools and personal protective equipment appropriate to the task during all operations.

DANGER:Beware of incendiary or explosive devices! The scene may contain devices specifically designed to kill or maim public safety responders. Do not touch any suspected incendiary or explosive device. Evacuate the area, and request the services of personnel trained in the removal of such items.

Preserve the fire scene. First responders must understand how rescue, medical, fire suppression, overhaul, and salvage efforts can adversely affect evidence and take steps to preserve it. They should secure the fire scene and identify potential evidence, take preliminary steps to preserve it, and notify appropriate authorities about its existence.

First responders should:

  • Observe and mentally note evidence at the scene, such as:
    • Fire patterns (including multiple fire locations).
    • Burn injuries to victims and fire patterns on clothing.
    • Trailers, ignitable liquids or other unusual fuel distribution (e.g., piles of newspapers and/or furniture pushed together).
    • Incendiary/ignition/explosive devices (e.g., lighters, matches and timing devices).
    • Shoe prints and tire impressions.
    • Broken windows and doors.
    • Distribution of broken glass and debris.
    • Indications of forced entry (tools and tool marks).
    • Containers.
    • Discarded clothing.
    • Trace evidence (e.g., hairs, fibers, fingerprints, blood and other body fluids).
    • Evidence of crimes in addition to the possible arson (e.g., weapons, bodies, drugs and/or clandestine drug laboratory equipment).
    • Witnesses, bystanders and victims.
    • Any other unusual items or the absence of normal contents or structural components.
  • Recognize threats to evidence (i.e., its movement, removal, contamination or destruction) from any of the following sources:
    • Fire-suppression activities that may wash away or dilute potential evidence.
    • Overhaul activities that destroy fire patterns.
    • Salvage activities that involve moving or removing physical evidence.
    • Tool use that may destroy evidence.
    • Moving knobs, switches and controls on appliances and utilities.
    • Weather conditions that affect transient evidence (i.e., wind, precipitation or temperature changes).
    • Personnel walking through the scene.
    • Witnesses and victims leaving the scene.
    • Medical intervention and treatment of victims (e.g., by damaging evidence at the scene or destroying victims' clothing).
    • Premature removal or movement of bodies.
    • Vehicles at the scene (e.g., that introduce fluid to the scene through vehicle leaks or destroy other evidence, including shoe prints and tire impressions).
    • Contamination from external sources, such as fuel-powered tools or equipment.
  • Protect evidence by:
    • Limiting excessive fire suppression, overhaul and salvage.
    • Avoiding needless destruction of property.
    • Leaving bodies undisturbed.
    • Flagging items of evidence with cones or markers.
    • Recording observations through written notes or voice recordings.
    • Covering items or areas containing evidence with objects that will not contaminate the evidence (e.g., clean boxes or tarpaulins).
    • Isolating items or areas containing evidence with rope, barrier tape, barricades or sentries.
    • Retaining and securing clothing items removed from victims and suspects.
    • Obtaining information about victims and witnesses (i.e., their names, addresses and telephone numbers).
    • Preserving transient evidence (e.g., trace evidence, shoe prints and tire impressions).
    • Removing evidence if it might be destroyed by the fire or the collapse of a damaged building.
    • Telling arriving investigators about what evidence has been discovered.

Establish security and control. First responders should immediately establish control of the scene and initiate documentation of the scene.

To establish security and control, first responders should:

  • Set up a security perimeter (e.g., using barrier tape).
  • Control access into the scene through the security perimeter.
  • Initiate documentation of the scene.

Coordinate interagency activities. First responders must coordinate emergency operations between many different agencies and organizations.

To coordinate activities at the scene, first responders should:

  • Establish a command post and implement an incident command system (i.e., a point of contact and line of communication and authority for public safety personnel).
  • Establish staging areas to ensure that emergency and support vehicles have access into the area.
  • Request additional personnel resources, such as firefighters, EMS personnel, law enforcement officers, investigators, and representatives of utility companies.
  • Inform authorities about the status of the incident, hazards, injuries, witnesses, the location of evidence, and other pertinent facts.
Date Created: June 1, 2009