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Fire Investigation: 5 Helpful Tips for Documenting Arson Scenes

By: Jocelyne Terilli

Unfortunately, 2016 saw several wildfires that are now suspected arson cases, such as the recent fires in Tennessee and Northern California. Fire scenes are often some of the toughest scenes to investigate and analyze. Potential evidence has been disturbed or destroyed; the area might not be safe; and they’re naturally dark, making it difficult to spot items of interest.

However, fire scenes should be treated as crime scenes and extensively documented. Arson cases typically go to trial about five to seven years after the crime. A well-documented scene will have details, even ones that might not seem important at the time but later become relevant.

We recently held a training webinar, “Fire and Arson Investigation Basics” and covered how to approach and process arson scenes. Here are five tips for documenting and getting as much as evidence as possible from an arson scene:

Approach the scene slowly. Not only can fire scenes be potentially dangerous because of structural damage, but you also want to note any items of interest leading up to and around the scene. This could include items that shouldn’t necessarily be where they are. One example, mentioned in our webinar, was a cement block in a vehicle fire, an object that seemed out of place in a car. Later, that piece of evidence led to the suspect being apprehended.

Photograph everything. It seems like a hopeless task because arson scenes are so dark but there are techniques and products you can use. Check out our other blog post where we cover the “Painting with Light” technique that can help you light up a scene as you photograph it. We also offer powerful scene lighting that will illuminate and make your scene virtually shadow free.

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Question everyone. This doesn’t only mean victims or potential suspects but also firefighters and EMS, who often are the first to a scene; spectators, who witness other activities surrounding the fire; and media, who probably have video footage. Take extensive notes while questioning everyone. If needed, we offer All-Weather Writing Products to ensure your notes can be made and will not be damaged in any environment.

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Collect evidence with the right tools. You want to make sure you have the correct tools on hand to collect and preserve evidence the right way to protect the integrity of your case. Examples include the appropriate evidence collection bags and containers, including ones for accelerants. We also offer arson investigation kits, including our Tool Cleaning Kit, so you don’t cross-contaminate different areas of your scene.

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Get the right people around you. For example, if there’s a body at the scene, that is often the best evidence you will have and you should get a Medical Examiner there as soon as possible. If there’s an Accelerant Detection K9 team in your area, you should also have them quickly to the scene as well as your Certified Fire Investigator (CFI). Other people you might want on the scene is a Scene Security Officer, to keep the scene safe and barricaded, and a Schematic Artist to document the scene.

Please contact your designated Sirchie Sales Representative if you would like access to our November webinar, “Fire & Arson Investigation Basics,” which has additional information.

Browse our website section, “Fire & Arson Investigation” for additional products that will help you command every scene.

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