Wednesday, October 17th, 2018

Avoiding Contamination of Fire Scenes

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If your job duties require you to enter the premises of a fire loss which is under investigation, here are a few simple rules you should follow to prevent the accidental contamination and alteration of the fire scene.

Rule #1 – Avoid disturbing the fire scene.
Whether you are the first or fortieth person to enter the fire scene you should always try and leave the scene as you found it unless you have permission to disturb it, and still you should only disturb the portions relevant to your investigation.

Rule #2 – Don’t spill fuel in or near the fire scene.
Contamination of the fire scene with an ignitable liquid could lead investigators to find traces of it in ignitable liquid residue tests which could lead them to draw incorrect conclusions about the nature of the fire which could result in dire consequences for the owner or occupants of the fire loss. Never refill a fuel powered tool, appliance or generator inside a fire loss. Make sure the area you refill at is far away in an area where people will not be walking through tracking spilled fuel into the fire loss. If you refuel your vehicle prior to arriving at the fire loss, make sure you do not contaminate your shoes or clothing with fuel, if so you may need to change before entering.

Rule #3 – Don’t litter in the fire scene, especially with cigarette butts or batteries.
If you smoke, do not discard cigarettes, cigarette butts, empty packs, matches or lighters at or near the scene. Another investigator visiting the scene may see them and mistake them for artifacts from the fire scene. Furthermore, do not discard any trash, papers or batteries from cameras or equipment inside the fire loss no matter how trashed it already looks as these might also be mistaken as artifacts from the fire scene; discarded 9 volt batteries are especially misleading as they are typically used in smoke detectors.

Rule #4 – Don’t manipulate switches or knobs or buttons.
The position of knobs, switches and buttons at the time of the fire can be an especially important piece of information for the fire investigator. Manipulating equipment and appliance controls, circuit panel breakers, and electrical switches can easily damage them if they are fire damaged making it nearly impossible for someone performing a subsequent investigation to determine its position. Furthermore, moving controls on appliances, equipment and electrical switches can lead investigators to wrong conclusions regarding whether or not electrical power, fuel gas, or other materials were being supplied to the equipment at the time of the fire. If you happen to accidently move a switch, immediately document the fact and if possible note its position prior to moving it; next you should notify the person or persons responsible for maintaining fire scene custody.

Rule #5 – Always document before moving or touching anything.
It is a good idea to document everything at the fire scene before entering or touching anything, even if you are not planning on touching anything. Due to weakening caused by damage from the fire, the simple act of touching a door or walking on a wooden floor can cause these fire artifacts to fall apart, thereby permanently altering the fire scene. If damage does occur, having photographic or videotaped evidence of its condition prior to the damage occurring can go a long way in thwarting allegations of spoliation.

By following a few simple rules and using common sense, you can protect the integrity of the fire loss you are visiting and protect yourself from allegations of spoliation of evidence.

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