For many police officers, being the first on the scene of a fire is a real possibility. Frontline police supervisors must be aware of how their officers can do more than traffic direction at the fire scene. Initial actions or observations made by an officer may be the key for later establishing that a fire was criminal in origin. Like many investigations the actions or inactions of first responders have effects on how a fire investigation can turn out. These observations can only be made if supervisors are training their officers to be on the lookout and asking for reports to be made.
Why People Start a Fire?
There are a number of reasons people want to start a criminal fire. Reminding officers about these reasons will help to place them into the right mind set for making the necessary observations.
There are six typical reasons for arson: profit, vandalism, excitement, revenge, concealment of a different crime and terror. It's possible that a person could be motivated by more than one of these six categories.
Profit: Home and business owners about to default on a loan are known to set fires to collect the insurance profits. Owners of abandoned building can profit by burning it down rather than pay for demolition. Even small fires could be a source of profit. A fire contained to a kitchen can allow a homeowner to get that high-end kitchen remodel paid for by their insurance.
Vandalism is often associated with juveniles. Trash cans, park shelters, school property or abandoned property are all easy targets for kids. A vandal may be targeting someone they hold a grudge against. They may also bored and destroy property for entertainment.
Excitement fire setters could seek personal attention or a voyeuristic excitement. The arsonists may enjoy seeing all the big trucks, with flashing lights and loud sirens. Persons looking for excitement will often times be in the crowds watching, taking photos even videotaping the scene. Other excitement fire starters may be the people who will put it out. Firefighters—and even some police officers—have set fires in order to be the "hero" and get some recognition.
Revenge can come from either a real or imagined hostility between the arsonist and the victim. Family problems, employment issues, even business deals have all lead to someone setting a fire. These fires often come at times of great emotional crisis for the person setting them. There could be more damage than just the fire at the scene.
Concealment of crime: Persons who commit crimes such as burglary and murder think that by setting a fire all the evidence will be destroyed. Killers also think that burning a body will make the identification of the remains impossible. The paper records used in embezzlements or frauds are also good targets for someone using fire to conceal criminal activity.
Terrorists or extremists can use fire for a number of objectives. Remind officers that not every terrorist is a member of Al Qaeda. Ecological and political groups are very active in the U.S. Targets for these groups have been doctors, clinics, new housing developments and even car dealerships. In addition to commercial operations, these groups have targeted the homes of employees and owners of these businesses.
Having officers who are aware of these reasons for arson will put into context many of the observations to follow. Reminder: People may have more than one reason for starting a fire.
In Route to the Call
Making observations that may show a fire as being criminal in nature can start while still driving to the scene. There are a number of things your officers may be able to take note of.
What is the timing of this fire? The patrol officers get to know the traffic patterns and times to avoid streets or routes due to congestions. In a community with railroad tracks or a drawbridge there can also be semi-regular patterns that cause traffic bottlenecks. Does this fire correspond to any of these events, such that it would slow a response from a fire department? For communities with volunteer departments, does traffic congestion limit the number of persons able to respond?
Time of year can also affect the response of the department. In areas that receive snow, is the fire corresponding with a snowstorm? Volunteer and on-call departments are effected by winter weather, as the firefighters need to first get to the firehouse, and then get trucks to the scene. Snow-plowing operations affect fire departments by covering over fire hydrants. Did the fire department have to go looking for the hydrants? Remind officers that a snowplow is not the only way to cover a fire hydrant. Have your officer check to see if all the hydrants in the neighborhood are dug out from under the snow, except for the one(s) closest to the fire?
The timing of plowing operations can also have some effects on fire department response. Often during the snowstorm only the major roads are fully plowed. It's not until the storm lets up that side streets get attention. In some areas, after calling out the fire department, a dispatcher may radio the street department to send a plow to make sure the route is clear for the fire trucks. A volunteer fire department might see a limited response due to members living on the unplowed side streets. Any radio traffic or phone calls detailing the above listed issues must have recordings saved.
Although none of these in-route observations are definitive proof of arson they will help an investigator later. Should a fire be classified as arson, an investigator will need to show there was intent on the part of the arsonist. Anything documenting a purposeful slowing down or preventing of firefighting actions can help to show intent.
Arrival at the Scene
Almost any disaster is bound to draw a crowd. The action and spectacle of the lights and sirens attracts bystanders. To observe a person leaving a fire scene prior to fire department arrival is unusual. Officers responding should be told to note any persons or vehicles leaving upon the officers' arrival. The first responder should also be observant of the spectators. If the community is experiencing a rash of fires, officers must look out for the same persons at multiple fire scenes. If possible, offices should try to point squad car dash cameras at the crowds or use a digital camera to get photos of bystanders' faces. Later, if fires have been ruled as criminal, the photos from multiple scenes can be compared and may show the same person(s) at multiple scenes.
Reminder: When documenting spectators, officers must look for injuries, as well as singed hair, eyebrows and beards, red skin and burnt or singed clothing. These are signs that the arsonist got to close to the fire—or that it started faster than they figured it would. If the fire department calls for an accelerant detection dog, have your officers point out the injured people to the dog handler. Remember: It’s perfectly acceptable for a dog to sniff persons for traces of flammable liquids in public.
As long as your officer is snapping photos ask them to also get shots of the building that’s burning. By taking multiple photos during even a few minutes, the officer is able to document growth and progression of the fire. The arson investigators later can use these photos to show that the fire grew too fast or in some unnatural way.
Early after arrival at a fire, police officers typically try to establish who the occupants of the building are. Given life safety issues, this is a necessary task. In addition to determining that all residents have made it out safely the first-arriving officer can also evaluate the residents for suspicious signs. During hard economic times, an easy way to get out from under mortgage and other debts is to burn down a house.
Be observant. As previously mentioned, take notes or snap photos of injuries. In addition, officers should look to see if the residents are properly dressed for the time of day. Are these residents fully dressed in warm cloths with shoes tied at 4 a.m.? Are they standing with pets on leashes or in cages? Is the family car miraculously parked on the street filled with irreplaceable objects like photos and family keepsakes? Is there anything else your officer can see that makes them think these occupants had prior knowledge a fire was about to happen? Although these facts alone are not evidence of arson, they could be helpful to investigators.
The first responding officer can also be helpful in getting some baseline information. Establish a timeline that will be useful for the arson investigators later during their interviews. To establish a timeline, officers must ask the following:
A person may set a fire to destroy property, they may be looking for an insurance pay out, or they could want a combination of both. To ensure property destruction the fire needs to burn longer. Documentation of anything that slowed the fire department’s response can show the desire to destroy. Setting a fire for profit takes some planning and thought. Observations that lead an officer to think there was prior knowledge the fire was about to happen can show that planning.
Remind patrol officers that a fire scene is a potential crime scene. Just as with any other crime scene the actions or inaction of the first responder can affect the overall investigation.
Joe LeFevre is a former police officer and firefighter. Today he teaches criminal justice and forensic investigations classes at University of Wisconsin, Platteville. He can be reached at email@example.com.