No matter how they start, fires are destructive and devastating. They consume all in their path and leave little, if any, evidence behind. Without evidence, determining the source of a fire is tricky. And without a source, it’s impossible to know what measures to take to prevent future blazes.
Fortunately, there’s a group of astute and intelligent people trained to identify the sources of fires even when evidence is minimal. Are you interested in learning more about what certified fire investigators (CFIs) do? Here’s what you need to know about the fire investigation process.
Before the Investigation
Before the CFI can arrive on the scene and begin the investigation process, first responders need to put out the fire and attend to any victims. Safety comes first, and the investigation can’t proceed until the fire is doused and all victims are accounted for.
First responders aren’t just in charge of saving lives—they also play a crucial role in the fire investigation process. They’re also in charge of observing the scene and taking accurate and detailed notes about the situation. First responders document:
- The location and conditions of victims and witnesses
- Any unusual activity (such as any vehicles leaving the scene, broken doors or windows)
- What the fire and smoke look like
- The first responders on the scene
- What kind of building was affected (business or residence)?
- The condition of the building
- The weather
- Whether there were any fire alarms, security alarms, or sprinklers, and if they went off
- The technique(s) used to contain the fire
On top of jotting down helpful information, first responders also do their best to preserve the scene. This ensures fire investigators have access to as much untainted information as possible to help their case. They protect evidence by using the least damaging fire suppression method(s) available, taping off the scene, marking areas or items of importance with cones or markers, and preserving trace evidence. First responders take care not to touch or move any evidence and try to keep the scene as-is. It’s crucial for them to keep the scene in its natural state so as to not mislead investigators and throw the investigation off course.
The Role of a Fire Investigator
Once the first responders have done their part, a trained fire investigator supersedes the lofty job. The role of a fire investor is to determine the cause of a fire, whether that be arson, faulty electric power systems, a cooking mishap, or something else. They’re also tasked with evaluating the condition of the building and recommending the next steps in regards to restoration, addressing safety concerns, and legal problems.
What Tools and Equipment Does an Investigator Use?
One thing you need to know about the fire investigation process is what fire investigators use to investigate. Fire investigators use a variety of tools and equipment during the fire investigation process. One important thing that all fire investigators have is PPE—personal protective equipment. The site of a fire is a dangerous place. Smoke and vapors in the air can irritate the lungs, and debris scattered on the floor can cause wounds. For this reason, CFIs wear PPE that includes gloves, protective clothing, a helmet, and thick, and sturdy closed-toe shoes and boots. These clothing items protect them from potential hazards on-scene.
CFIs also use the following gear:
- Barrier tape
- Decontamination equipment
- Evidence containers
- Hand tools
- Marker cones or flags
- Rakes and brooms
- Tape measures
- Writing equipment
These tools help them locate, mark, and secure evidence and take notes.
Evaluating the Scene
Once the CFI arrives on scene, they touch base with first responders so they can learn about what happened prior to their arrival. Then, they do a quick sweep of the scene. This way, they can determine what safety measures they need to take during the investigation and whether additional personnel is necessary.
Once they conduct the initial sweep and the necessary personnel are on site, they can continue evaluating the scene. During the evaluation stage, CFIs search for the source of the fire. Sometimes, this is immediately obvious. Other times, this requires a lengthier and more extensive examination of the scene.
Documenting the Scene
Once they finish the evaluation, CFIs document the scene by photographing or videotaping it. As documenting every small detail of the scene would take an exorbitant amount of time, they normally only document areas of interest. These areas include the interior and exterior of the building, the source of the fire, and any crucial pieces of evidence.
After evaluating and processing the scene, it’s time for investigators to process the information at the scene. But before they can process said evidence, they need to collect it. Evidence is collected carefully to avoid contamination. Articles of importance are placed into the appropriate container, which are then labeled. Not all evidence can be collected in full, so photos and swabs are taken of this transient evidence as an alternative. Some of the collected evidence is sent to labs for analysis, while others are inspected further by the investigation team.
Completing the Investigation
Once they collect the evidence they need, the CFI releases the scene. What does releasing the scene mean? It means that the scene is no longer under the control of the authorities and that cleaning and restoration efforts can begin. Before an investigator can release a scene, they must ensure that:
- All evidence is properly documented and inventoried
- Preliminary information is shared with all involved parties, including the investigation team and law enforcement
- All information is reported to fire databases
- Health, safety, and legal issues are addressed and brought to the attention of the person the property is released to
With that, the job of a fire investigator is done. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the investigation is over. In the case of fires caused by arson or criminal negligence, law enforcement officials frequently take over and continue the investigation.
Identifying the cause of a fire is a crucial step to preventing future fires. Dreiym Engineering offers forensic fire investigation services so home and business owners can get the answers they need to keep their building and the people who frequent it safe.
Our experts will investigate any fire, whether it’s residential, commercial, industrial, or vehicular. If you need a fire investigator, contact us and we’ll send out our team of certified fire investigators as soon as possible.