Investigating a Fire

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When I first joined my local volunteer fire department in high school, little did I know that my entire life would go on to revolve around dealing with fire. I eventually became chief of the department and, through the years, saw too many needless fires burn. People lost their homes, businesses, family heirlooms, important documents, and in the most severe cases, they lost their lives. After spending a majority of my career putting out fires, I went on to join the New York City Police Department as a fire and arson detective. For eight years, I was able to use my experience as a firefighter to investigate the origin of hundreds of fires and explosions. It may sound daunting, but when we fire investigators are staring at a pile of ashes and rubble, we are still able to determine the origin of the damage. Let’s take a look at the most common process for investigating fire and arson damage. The Call Fire investigations begin as soon as we receive the assignment. Relevant information like involved parties, addresses, incident dates and contact information is gathered, along with Department of Building records, news accounts and weather. Once we gather that information, we take a trip to the site. First Impression We take our investigation on the road to visit the location of the fire.

We first gather a first impression of the building, noting the type and condition of the structure, as well as an examination for surveillance and alarm systems, utilities and the condition of the immediate surrounding area, noting any potential contributing sources of fire. The Inspection After we gather our first impression, we begin the inspection process on the outside of the building. Generally, we take note of the heating system and condition of gas and electric meters; we want to know what type of service existed and whether it contributed to the fire. We inspect for damage to any openings, like doors, windows, entries and exits. Any signs of forced entry at an opening may be an indication of incendiary events. We also take note of the condition of the yard and sidewalk, HVAC, pools, and oil tanks. Once we gather the information outside of the building, we work our way inward, typically starting from the least amount of damage to the most amount of damage—the most amount of damage usually occurs closest to the fire’s origin. We check alarms, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

We note the construction materials and finishes used, as well as the electrical and mechanical areas. We may perform arc mapping, the process of methodically identifying the fire origin by assessing electrical components, to further hone in on the point of origin. Throughout the process, we take photos to document the damage. A fire investigator may also elect to reconstruct the fire scene to evaluate areas of damage. We will also provide a sketch of the building and relevant areas of fire damage, secure evidence, and note any absence of contents that may indicate foul play. One Step Further After we inspect the building, our investigation continues with interviews of the building’s owners, occupants, and any other relevant parties. We confer with the local fire department, fire marshal, and police department. If necessary, we contact the Consumer Product Safety Commission or other related organizations for complaints and recalls on any products found at the scene.

Wrapping It Up Once we wrap up the inspection and are finished conferring with outside sources, we thoroughly review any photos of the scene and comb through documentation. Sometimes, if we want an additional opinion, we may seek the expertise of a forensic engineer, and most commonly seek the services of electrical engineers to assess circuit breakers, outlets and appliances. A private investigator is sometimes also needed to establish financial motives for an incendiary event. At the end of the investigation, investigators through a process that I like to consider meshing fire science with investigation. We will take all of the aforementioned factors into consideration, and then review and analyze each detail of the incident to determine the origin and cause of a fire. Each time a fire and arson investigator takes on a claim, they are likely to do so with an in-depth knowledge of fire science, fire dynamics, and an understanding of the code. The ultimate goal is to combine that knowledge with a scientific-based investigation and analysis to determine the cause of fire and explosion incidents. Ed Scharfberg is a fire and explosion investigator for H2M’s Forensic Division with over 20 years of experience. For more information on fire and explosion investigation, please contact Kevin Taylor, manager of H2M’s environmental department, at