Some colleagues over at the Austin Fire Department kindly agreed to take part in my occasional Q & A series. I have had two cases (and a new one landed on my desk today) with these guys and I can tell you that they know their stuff. Some fire investigators have gotten bad press lately, so I'm pleased to share a little about what they do.
1. What is your professional background?
Each AFD Fire and Arson Investigator has to have the following certifications: Texas Commission on Fire Protection Arson Investigator, Structural Fire Fighter, Fire Instructor, and Fire Inspector. They are all Emergency Medical Technicians certified by the Texas Department of Health. And, they also have to be licensed peace officers. Several of the more tenured investigators also have CFI (certified fire investigator) status through the International Association of Arson Investigators.
2. What training does a fire investigator have before being given that title?
Each AFD Investigator has to promote to the rank of Lieutenant within the department before being considered for an open position. This ensures that the investigator has several years of training and experience within the field of fire suppression before they are assigned
as investigators. Once assigned to the unit, the new investigator will be enrolled in a basic peace officer academy. Once that training is complete, they have to complete a 150 hour course on fire investigation (as outlined by the TCFP).
3. How many fires do you investigate, as lead or on the team, per month?
AFD Investigations performs approximately 400 investigations per year. Assignment as a lead investigator is dependent upon staffing at the time of the receipt of alarm but, on average, each investigator will be assigned as a lead 35-40 times per year.
4. What is the hardest thing about your job?
Fire Scene examinations are probably the most physically tough portion of this job (and the dirtiest). Investigators are required to excavate the fire scene, collect artifacts from the debris, reconstruct the scene with the remnants, and make conclusions about their findings (i.e. where the fire started and what caused it to occur).
5. Do you continue to take training once you are an investigator?
After the initial training, each investigator is required to maintain the continuing education requirements for EMT, Firefighter, Hazmat, and for Peace Officer. Additionally, each AFD Investigator will participate in annual evaluations of their fire pattern recognition ability.
6. Take us through the steps you take when you arrive at the scene of a
fire. Maybe start with what you are trying to accomplish.
First, a fire must occur. Once this happens a call to 911 is made by the observer and fire crews respond to the event. During the course of the extinguishment and overhaul of the fire scene, the responding fire crews will determine the cause of the fire. If they cannot or, if they determine that it was most likely an incendiary event, the fire crews will call for the response of the fire and arson investigators. Fire investigators arrive on scene and begin collecting information. This information may be in the form of dispatch information (911 caller info,
date or time relevance, etc.), eye witnesses on scene, and fire crew observations. Investigators will then examine the exterior of the burned building or vehicle by completing a 360 degree tour of the scene.
They will note anything that may be of importance to the investigation (i.e. gas cans sitting nearby, broken windows, general housekeeping, curious observers in the crowd, etc.).
Once the exterior observation is complete, they will move to the interior. Along the way, they will note any signs of forced entry into the building or vehicle. Observations will be noted with regard to fire movement and intensity patterns (burn patterns left upon wall surfaces, construction members, and or furnishings). From these observations, the investigator will began to formulate a hypothesis with regard to where the fire started. Once the investigator has a room or area of origin determined, he / she will begin excavating fire debris and searching for potential ignition sources.
All potential ignition sources have to be considered (electrical, smoking materials, spontaneous combustion, or act of arson to name a few). After locating all potential sources of ignition, the
investigator will examine each more thoroughly in order to eliminate or validate the items potential for having caused the fire. Often times, the investigator will reconstruct the room with the remnants identified during the scene excavation. This reconstruction of the scene, will often assist the investigator by showing areas of greater damage (i.e. the remnants of a couch show that the left end of the frame is more intact that the right end. This may mean that the fire started and burned longer near the right end of the couch.) If the investigator is able to make a determination, based upon their findings, a cause determination is made. If the cause is arson, the investigator will then identify and pursue the individual(s) responsible.
7. Any funny/weird stories or anecdotes you can share?
After a structure fire, AFD Investigator's attention was drawn to a vehicle on the property/garage. A routine inventory was done for damages and reporting purposes. The gentleman associated with the property was on parole. During the search several firearms were
discovered. When asked about the origin of the weapons, the gentleman replied, "Those can't be my guns....it's illegal for me to have guns....so...those can't be my guns..."
8. Can fingerprints or DNA survive a fire?
DNA and fingerprints can definitely survive a fire event. This of course ultimately depends upon the extent of fire damage to the building or furnishings upon which the evidence is located. Research shows that DNA evidence can survive a fairly significant exposure to fire.
9. What are the telltale signs of an accelerant being used (if any)?
There are several potential indicators of accelerant use. However, each of these indicators must be considered with other pertinent data before a conclusion can be made. Some of the signs to look for are burn patterns on flooring that are inconsistent with the fire scene, smells within piles of debris or in the open air, fires that flash back upon extinguishment, fires that seem to have an accelerated time line of events, inverted v-patterns (normally fires burn up and out and cause a
v- shaped pattern to occur on wall surfaces), or unusual flame color or smoke production.