Have you had the unfortunate mishap of suffering a fire recently? Have you always wondered how long it usually takes for a fire insurance company and your hometown’s local fire department to go through what happened and ensure that everything will be settled equitably? And what happens when you eventually find out that this fire began under suspicious circumstances and not by accident? The good news here is that going through a fire investigation is a well-understood process by experts. This post can help you learn more about a fire investigation and how long this process usually takes.
Usually, a fire investigation takes a minimum of a few days, going up to a few months, or even longer. It all depends on several factors. These include the number of witnesses, how big the fire is, the loss of life, and property. They could also look at the angle of suspicious activity if there is any.
Whenever you buy a homeowner’s insurance, one of the last things you can think about at that moment is placing a fire claim. But when a fire does happen, it happens, and unfortunately, there isn’t anything you can do about it. Just take comfort in realizing that the fire insurance you acquired will guide you through the fire-created mess.
Sometimes people come to insurance companies and wonder why their fire damage claims take a while to be approved. It’s always best to guide people through a fire investigation process, which is time-consuming and will cause many delays during the claim settlement process.
What is a Fire Investigation?
Fire investigation is analyzing any fire-related incident with the aid of fire dynamics. Whenever a huge and disastrous fire happens, an investigator needs to look at how and where the fire began and whether it was intentional. If the fire was deemed intentional, then the findings of a fire investigator can lead to a criminal charge. If the fire has unfortunately caused deaths, then the person who caused the fire could be charged with murder. A home or a business needs to acquire insurance to keep itself and its possessions safe against fire. Even though you can always take all of the necessary precautions to reduce the risk of an accidental fire, a deliberate fire can begin at any time. This is why you need to protect your property as much as possible. Smoke damage, water damage, and fire are all huge events that can damage your property, which will require insurance companies to restore the harm these disasters have caused. And when you have the appropriate insurance, you can keep yourself and your property safe from spending hundreds of costs on repairs.
Fire Investigation Procedures
All fire investigations go through the same process in Canada. Here is what you have to know. Fire investigation in itself is a very complex process. You might think that the investigator reaching the site and talking about the fire with the owners is the first step, but that’s not the case. There is a complete sequence of steps that these investigators have to follow.
The priority is to keep your loved ones safe. Firefighters always recommend keeping your home’s smoke alarms updated with working batteries. There should also be a fire extinguisher and a fire ladder if you live in an apartment unit or in a house that has more than one floor.
A simple fire investigation is finished in a month, mainly if it’s dealt with promptly and quickly. However, significant studies can last much longer, sometimes lasting for a few months. Everything comes down to the amount of evidence and information gathered from witnesses, so these investigators can sort through them to determine the cause.
A simple and small fire only takes two weeks to complete the fire investigation. Not everything is like what it seems in movies or television shows. There are fire investigations that go on for several months or even several years. One of the biggest misconceptions people may have when it comes to fire investigation is the time factor.
ARRIVAL AT THE SCENE
A fire investigation is conducted using a scientific process. In countries like Canada, the investigator is usually required to receive a qualification from a non-profit organization such as the Canadian Fire Safety Association and meet all of the organization’s minimum standards. Acquiring this isn’t easy. There are several areas listed in which the fire investigator needs to obtain further education and go beyond the level usually obtained in schools.
And suppose this isn’t the route that the investigator wants. In that case, both the Canadian Fire Safety Association and some investigators from the International Association of Arson Investigators can provide an alternative qualification going for equal standing.
Whenever an investigator delivers an investigator in a fire, they must do two things first. The first one is to make sure that the crime scene is safe enough to look for a chain of evidence. A fire investigation is sometimes conducted when the fire has suspicious origins, making the whole situation a potential crime scene. This means that the investigator must preserve the chain of evidence as they continue to work.
The next step is to look at the security of the scene. Investigators will also have to ensure that the whole area they’re investigating has been thoroughly secured. This stops other individuals from blocking the investigation or tampering with the evidence, deliberately or accidentally. If they get to the scene early enough, the investigator must work alongside a fire department to stop any potential destruction of evidence. This can happen whenever the firefighters’ hoses spray high-pressure water over the evidence. Some firefighters are well-trained to prevent this damage from happening, but sometimes, this isn’t always possible.
These specific procedures will all depend on the size of the case and the individual scene.
Taking a look at the cause of the fire, especially when there’s a suspected arson involved, can be pretty tricky. This is because there’s usually plenty of evidence lying around in most crimes after the crime is done. But in the case of fire or arson, plenty of the evidence disappears because of the smoke. And unfortunately, this is also the case in an accidental fire. Let’s use an electrical fire as an example – If the electrical circuit box develops a short and starts catching fire, there’s a chance the fire itself can destroy it.
As an investigator, the main objective is to sift through the ash and remains of fire to put together the chain of events that can tell them the cause of the fire without gaining access to the primary source of data. It may seem easy, but it’s not – That’s because many fields deal with these particular investigations. For fire investigators, it’s pretty rare for fire investigators to learn all of these fields. Sometimes they’ll need the help of a representative from other disciplines or a forensic engineer so that they can learn more about certain portions of the whole investigation.
But during this portion of the investigation, the investigator will look more at the external structure of the fire zone first. After this, they will step inside the affected home or building to look at the internal structure. Then they will now begin to concentrate on their efforts when it comes to narrowing down a singular point of origin for the fire. Learning more about this point of origin helps the target what the investigator is trying to find.
When an arsonist has started a fire, an investigator will usually find small traces of accelerant. Accelerants are chemicals that can help the fire burn faster, such as alcohol or gas. The investigator will take small samples from the crime scene, then run them through several chemical tests at a lab to check if there’s any accelerant present.
DOCUMENTING THE EVIDENCE
This part is all about gathering data. The more info a fire investigator acquires, the easier it’ll be for them to find out how the fire started. The investigator also has to acquire all of the samples they’ll need. They will place tags on the samples or put them in a Ziploc bag or take note of any evidence that they want to remove from the scene. They will also add some extra notes on how these pieces of evidence were uncovered, where they got them, and what else to investigate.
The investigator must also be able to sketch out the scene, so they can use it as a reference when they lose access to it. They don’t need any formal artistic training to sketch because they can also take pictures of the scene and other evidence they might need.
To sum it up, the investigator has to create a profile of the fire so they can examine two scientific methods. They will either use the process of elimination, in which the investigator won’t rule anything out or look at the evidence. They will rule every possible issue out since the evidence is enough proof that it’s not possible.
Sometimes investigators will create a working theory during this part of the investigation, which they will gradually work through – As if the possible cause of the fire is what happened unless they come across evidence that contradicts their theory. This is known as the process of probability.
WRAPPING IT ALL UP
The only thing that’s missing is for the investigator to wrap up the whole thing and bring everything together. This usually deals with three phases depending on what they have discovered in previous parts of the investigation.
First off, the investigator has to make sure that they have readied their documentation about the fire. This includes gathering reports that deal with the scene and other evidence that they have discovered during the investigation. They do this to demonstrate that whatever further action they may take will depend on an amount of scientific proof instead of an intuition or a mere hunch.
Sometimes, these investigators will need to talk to all parties involved with the fire. This includes experts that the investigator has assisted and the material witnesses. This step can take a long while, depending on the number of witnesses that the investigator talks to.
Finally, if the investigator has concluded that the fire was committed through arson, they have to present hard evidence to the interested parties, including the police. This ensures that the crime is taken seriously. During a trial, they might be called by the judge to testify in court against any individual who is suspected of doing the crime.
What is the Importance of Fire Investigation?
Each fire is different, and each fire investigator is different. But all of these fire and explosion investigations follow the same process. Sometimes, it’s quite straightforward, so they can learn how far every investigation goes.
If a fire deals with the loss of large amounts of property, goods, money, or life, these investigations can last for a long while. But for smaller fires they can be wrapped up in two weeks or so, depending on the investigator’s workload.
Fire investigation and fire prevention are two of the more essential aspects of fire service. Experts agree that there should be more public knowledge regarding topics like these instead of requiring further explanation to all individuals. Installing a smoke alarm or a fire alarm at home or work is already good practice for fire prevention. Fire prevention tips are pretty easy to understand. However, the main definition of “fire prevention” involves teaching these tips in businesses, schools, homes, and other areas where a fire can potentially happen. Fire investigation is an excellent way of looking at the origin and cause of the fire, which involves both accidental and arson fires.
Since fire has been around, people have often wondered how they begin and who starts them. In rare instances, there is even no specific cause of a fire. Some of the biggest questions during a fire investigation are 1.) Who started it, 2.) Was it intentionally set, or if it’s an accident? Most of the time, fires are ruled accidental – But there are cases where an accidental fire can end with the result being determined as arson because of the fire investigator’s evidence.
And once the fire has been put out, a fire investigator will be called to the scene and asked how the fire came to be. An accidental fire could come from frozen heated water pipes, an electrical malfunction, and so many other things. Accidental fires involve everyone in which the proven cause doesn’t involve a person deliberately spreading or igniting a fire in a space in which fire shouldn’t appear. Plenty of these accidental fires usually happen due to electrical issues or machine malfunctioning. These include things such as improperly installed electrical wires or overloaded electrical circuits.
How Can Homeowners Help a Fire Investigator?
Despite being a regular citizen, you can do your part in moving the investigation of the claim much faster. This is what you have to do:
- Talk to the insurance company and tell them what happened. Sometimes they will tell you how you need to proceed afterwards. Do not delay telling the insurance company about what happened. Any lack of communication can play a very important role in either rejection or acceptance of a claim.
- Take plenty of pictures and make a video of the full fire damage, including the ones caused by soot and smoke. Keep in mind that when you’re doing this activity, don’t move anything that comes from its original place. This can help the fire investigators rebuild the scene much faster.
- Write down a note of everything that’s happened, if you can. Please keep track of the things that may have possibly led to the fire and all of the steps you took to put it off and stop it from further spreading. This is an important step to prove that you did your very best to keep the damage as small as possible.
- If this is your first time placing a fire claim, then contact an adjuster to help you out. Making a mistake or two during the claim, then correcting them and refilling them, only further adds to the claim settlement issue.
- Another thing to write down is the contact details of the witnesses. Whenever there’s a fire, and you and other people see it, you need to talk to those other people and write down their contact details, like their names, emails, or phone numbers. These could be passers-by, your neighbors, or just about any individual who assisted you in containing the fire. This saves time for the fire investigators, mainly when they track down the witnesses. Another advantage is that these people can help you make your claim stronger.
Are Fire Investigation Reports Public?
One of the main reasons fire investigators do their job is to stop a fire from ever happening again. If these investigators have done their jobs correctly and acquired all the right information coming from the fire scene, then everyone can use the relayed info for fire prevention purposes. Sometimes these investigators can find a defect in an old and rusty kitchen appliance, which leads to a fire. This product will eventually get recalled, so there will be no potential fire risk.
Meanwhile, some investigators will determine that hazardous behavior resulted in the fire. These facts are often used in public education campaigns, including billboards, newsletters, posters, advertisements on radio or television, etc. Meanwhile, there will be evidence that a criminal act caused the fire. The fire investigator will then work alongside law enforcement to convict and apprehend the arson, protecting the community from them. This is why fire investigation is essential.
There will be times when the investigator will acquire the origin of the fire right away, along with the cause. This evidence is now ready to be documented right away when the firefighters or other fire suppression crews depart from the scene. Meanwhile, other investigators will spend days on the fire scenes, with weeks following up in the field or office if they work in one. In some instances, they are now about to find out all of the elements that caused the fire, concluding that it was possibly or probably caused by a certain factor. Sometimes the damage that comes from the fire is already complete, so the investigator won’t be able to determine anything, which leaves the cause labeled as “undetermined.” The complexity of every fire crime scene will tell the investigators exactly how long it takes for them to complete a fire investigation. But what’s important here is that they have completely and methodologically processed the whole fire scene by following some strict and formal protocols for figuring out the cause and origin of the fire. This is why fire investigators need to acquire all of the evidence needed.
And once the fire report is done, it officially becomes a public document. The public is the one who paid for the fire investigator’s work, in a way. And technically, the fire report belongs to the public now. Some residents can request the report as a public document, and it will be released following Canada’s own Public Records Act. For example, they won’t be able to tell the public that a witness has helped them identify a suspect until the suspect themselves has been apprehended and the witness is deemed safe. Canada has a law about public records that protect witnesses and victims, and a fire investigator will follow these laws closely. So as this is going on, there could be several legal issues that inform the investigator if they are allowed to release a report or whether certain parts of the report have to be confidential. So a fire investigation report is technically considered a public document, and the data concerning the fire is analyzed and gathered to help make the world less fire-prone.
Suppose I am a Fire Investigator. Where Does the Fire Investigation Process Usually Begin?
As a first responder to the scene, a fire investigator has to secure and assess the scene in its entirety and check to see if the victims will obtain the right kind of medical attention. First, take a look at the fire and scene conditions. A first responder at a fire scene must look at the activities and conditions first while giving fire investigators a complete and accurate description of the scene. When a fire investigator first approaches the scene, they need to observe the following activities and conditions mentally, so they can begin writing down permanent documentation of the info. This includes voice recordings, written notes, as well as videotapes:
- Presence and location of the witnesses and victims
- Vehicles leaving the scene, unusual activities near the scene, or bystanders
- Flame and smoke conditions, such as the color, the volume of flames and smoke, and the location and height of the flames. Investigators must also look at the direction in which the smoke and flames are moving.
- The first public safety personnel to arrive on the scene are firefighters, emergency medical services, or the police.
- The use of the structure (home or office) and the type of occupancy. For example, a residential occupancy could be used as a business.
- The conditions of the structure. Are the lights switched on or off? Did the fire pass through the wall or roof? Are there broken doors or windows? Were they opened or closed?
- The conditions that surround the scene. The debris, damage to other structures, or blocked driveways.
- Weather conditions.
- If there are fire suppression techniques used.
- Any unusual characteristics found on the scene, such as the absence of normal contents, if there are exteriors, unusual odors, fire trailers (physical trails of gas or alcohol, as well as if the trails create burn patterns)
- The status of sprinklers, fire alarms, and security or smoke alarms.
What About Explosion Investigations?
Some fire investigation departments have a section dedicated to investigating explosions. These include explosion accidents and bombing incidents. In these cases, an explosion can turn into a severe social issue thanks to the intense damage done to properties and human bodies. Research and skill work should be done concerning the whole explosion process. The analysis of explosive residue and evaluation of the power of the explosion is also applied to the whole investigation process.
How Does One Collect Evidence in an Explosion Site?
Like a regular fire investigation, investigating a blast site will show off some crucial clues that could lead to the investigation itself. When making a thorough investigation in regards to the condition of the scene. This includes any structural damage, any major fatalities or injuries. When grouped, an investigator can slowly put together what occurred at the blast site.
Fragments of an exploded device, such as a grenade or a bomb, will usually be left intact. This includes the timers, wiring, and circuit boards. If the bomber has crafted the timer using a unique kind of watch, then this info can help the investigators narrow down their search for the suspect, how they made the device, and where it came from.
Once an explosion is done, the residue that came from the explosive used up will be left behind. To learn more about the type of explosive used, an explosion investigator can utilize an IMS device (ion mobility spectrometer). This handheld device can detect chemicals and any residue that could be present surrounding the blast site. Depending on the size of the blast site, the investigation could be very expensive.
Aside from gathering physical evidence, video footage could also be available, coming from witnesses’ phones or tablets and security cameras. Investigators can also conduct interviews with witnesses and survivors to gather essential details. You can read more info regarding this issue here: Explosion Investigation – Process and Time Frame.
How to Become a Fire Investigator
- Make sure you are a high school graduate.
- Attain a bachelor’s degree. Certain candidates might want to pursue a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, engineering, fire science, or criminal justice.
- Attend a fire academy. Taking a job as a firefighter is very intense, which means you have to go through rigorous training to ensure fast reaction times and make smart decisions. Fire academy requires both classroom and physical work.
- Gain plenty of work experience working in either a police or fire department. Becoming a real fire investigator requires previous work experience as a firefighter or related field.
- Take part in a training program to get certified. Some arson investigator training programs will prepare you for this kind of field.
- You can now apply for a job as a fire investigator or an inspector. During the application process, you have to pass a background check which includes a drug test. Make sure to check the employing agencies’ requirements before applying.