The Arson Investigation Processes Explained

arson investigationThe majority of the audience of this blog will most likely already know the steps involved conducting an arson investigation, and some sections may seem like a no-brainer, but for those that are not familiar, here is a brief guide to the process. Some cases are pretty open and shut. The investigators arrive on the scene, take a quality sample, send in the sample for analysis, and results show there is some source of ignitable liquid present. Then, there is some detective work involved: interviewing witnesses, checking for surveillance video, charge the suspect, and hopefully the criminal is indicted and sentenced. Seems pretty straightforward, right? The reality is that there is so much more involved in conducting an arson investigation. Not only are the municipalities involved with the investigation, whether it be arson or accidental, attorneys and even claims adjusters, if there is an insurance claim involved, all have to work together to piece together the scenario. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) provides a step-by-step guide for investigators on their website, where most of this information can be found.

The NIJ names five steps in the investigation process, but not every step will apply every time. Each incident is unique and it is at the discretion of the investigator, officer, adjuster, etc., to utilize their own training and experience to decide whether or not to apply these procedures to each particular incident. Some of the steps listed here may not be required, again, it varies from case to case, and some steps may be combined and done in one step. The steps listed are: arriving at the scene, evaluating the scene, documenting the scene, processing evidence at the scene, and finally completing the investigation (National Institute of Justice 2009).

Upon arrival, the first responder should assess the scene, and ensure the victim(s), if any, receive immediate medical attention. Establish control of the scene by setting up a perimeter, and also establish who has access to the scene, so that the initial observation of the conditions can be documented. Be sure to provide accurate documentation of the details. Are there any vehicles leaving the scene? What are the weather conditions? Are there any witnesses? Unusual characteristics such as burn patterns or trails, or unusual odors are also important factors. Simply put, be very aware of the surroundings and take detailed note. An observation that may not seem suspicious at the time, might prove to be imperative to proving or disproving the case later on in litigation. Of course the responder should take every safety precaution so as not to injure themselves. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reported 97 fatalities in the United States in 2013 (NFPA Journal 2014). Look out for safety hazards and always wear personal protective equipment. Preserve the scene as best as possible; check for footprints or tire tracks, look for matches or other incendiary devices, and check whether or not there are broken windows or doors, those may be signs of forced entry which would lead the responder to suspect arson over an accidental fire. Finally, communicate between the multiple agencies that are involved. This important, not only for the safety of others, but also for documentation the other agencies may need while conducting their own investigation.

The NIJ lists the next step as evaluating the scene. This may seem redundant because most of the initial evaluations are done in the first step. This includes securing the scene, interviewing witnesses, and communication amongst first responders and all others on the scene. The NIJ goes further into detail by including the determination of the origin of the fire, and the cause, if possible. If neither are immediately obvious, the investigator should conduct a scene examination using NFPA 921 protocol, which is a “scientific-based investigation and analysis of fire and explosion incidents” ( 2014). This is where Armstrong Forensic Lab can be of assistance. We provide our clients with a fire debris sample collection kit that contains the basic tools needed to collect a quality sample of evidence in an arson investigation. Supplies including, but not limited to: clean, unused evidence containers, gloves, evidence tape, trowels, and a ruler. If arson is involved, then the investigator must address the legal requirements for access to the scene, such as a search and seizure warrant.

The procedures in documenting the scene can be combined, and may have already been performed in the first two steps as well. The investigator should take photographic or video evidence of the scene for documentation including: the crowd surrounding the scene, interior and exterior photos of the building, any points of origin or ignitable sources, any physical reconstruction that may have been performed, and additional photographic avenues such as infrared or aerial photography, if needed. In addition to photographic documentation, an investigator should also include a detailed written documentation for reinforcement, which may include sketches of the scene and/or layout of the building.

Once the evidence has been collected, processing it is the next step. An experienced or trained investigator will know what to look for as far as what is deemed as evidence. Collect the evidence using the tools described in “evaluating the scene.” Be sure to collect samples from the suspected origin of the fire in case it is, in fact, an arson investigation. Also, the investigator needs to be careful not to contaminate the evidence by using sterile gloves, clean, unused containers, etc. All evidence should be accurately packaged and labeled in accordance with laboratory procedures. Armstrong’s fire debris sample collection kit includes instructions on how to obtain a quality sample as well, in case there is any confusion. The investigator may also call us at 817-275-2691 if there is any confusion, we are more than happy to help! Procedure for packaging and transporting the evidence is very important in order to avoid damage. Measurements should be taken to prevent contamination, fragile items should be packaged very carefully, samples should be submitted to the laboratory immediately, and be sure to comply with shipping regulations. Lastly, but MOST importantly, chain of custody (COC) MUST be established and maintained through the entire process. Information on the form should include the sample number, description of the evidence, date and location, the name of the person collecting the evidence, and any misc notes that are imperative to the investigation. Each fire debris sample collection kit includes a COC form, but you may also find a fillable PDF COC form here on our website; we can email a COC form if needed as well.

Once all these steps have been taken, the investigator should be nearing completion. The investigator will then release the scene, which includes a final review, verification that all scene documentation is complete, acknowledgement of any safety issues, and the removal of any equipment and materials that were utilized in the investigation. Finally, all reports should be submitted to the appropriate databases within the ATF, FBI, U.S. Fire Administration, and any state and local sources.

This article is simply an abridged, informative quick guide to conducting an arson investigation. The author of this article is not a trained, certified arson investigator, so please rely on your training and experience from an official for a more comprehensive and completely accurate description of the process. This article is meant to give the reader a bit of insight into the basics of an arson investigation, and the reader should know that there is much more effort and skill involved. The information, though, was obtained from credible sites, which are listed below.

Armstrong Forensic Laboratory got its start over thirty years ago in fire debris analysis, and have since then expanded its services exponentially. We are an American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors – Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD-LAB) accredited laboratory, and our consultants are experts in their field. If you would like to obtain a fire debris sample collection kit, or some sample containers for your investigation, simply fill out the “Get A Sample Kit” form on our website, or call 800-644-4175 or 817-275-2691 DFW are, and we will be happy to have your supplies shipped out immediately.


NIJ Guide for Arson Investigation

NFPA Journal August 2014

NFPA 921