Investigating and documenting residential fires is a routine function of fire departments and insurance companies nationwide. The main purpose of an investigation is to pinpoint the origin of a fire and determine the likely cause. This leads to a conclusion as to whether the incident was accidental, natural, deliberate, or the result of a faulty product or house component. In addition, sufficient visual documentation is needed to support that determination. Below, we provide a brief overview of both important steps.
A residential fire scene may present multiple hazards, including structural collapse, dangerous debris, exposed electrical wiring, gas leaks, asbestos, and other toxic materials. Therefore, no investigator should enter the scene until an appropriate risk assessment is conducted. The scene must be declared safe by the fire department, and supplies of gas and electricity should be switched off before the investigation begins. Furthermore, all individuals entering the home should wear protective clothing, such as a hardhat, coveralls, steel-toe boots, thick gloves and, if necessary, a face mask.
Witnesses may be able to provide details about where the fire first appeared, how it looked, who was present, the possible cause of the fire, and the conditions or events leading up to the fire. Multiple people may need to be interviewed, including firefighters, police officers, occupants, and eyewitnesses, such as neighbors and passersby. Each interview should involve collecting a comprehensive statement from a single individual, out of ear shot of other witnesses. The investigator should also find out if any witnesses took photographs or video recordings that can be collected and used as investigative evidence.
When it comes to actually examining the fire-impacted home, where does the fire investigation process usually begin? Typically, it will start with an external examination of the structure. This allows for the identification of entry points, as well as structural defects or signs of forced entry that may indicate the origin and cause of the fire. Starting at the top, the investigator should closely evaluate the roof materials, chimneys, vents and gutter systems, then walls, windows and entry doors. The surrounding area should also be scanned to look for flammable substances, or any tools or ladders that may have been used to break into the home. It may also be important to take note of weather conditions that may have contributed to the cause and/or spread of the fire.
After the outside examination is completed, an interior investigation is then conducted. The investigator will generally begin with the area of least damage, and then move toward the seat of the fire – which will typically be found in a more damaged area of the home.
When an investigator is working at a residential fire scene, he or she should gather three types of visual documentation: photographs, videos, and a detailed floor plan. All three demonstrate the investigator’s expertise, and also bring credibility to that person’s observations and conclusions.
Every fire scene investigation should involve capturing a lot of pictures. That’s because photos are necessary for adjusting and settling any insurance claims related to the fire, and also are a cornerstone for legal proceedings when arson is suspected. Fire scene investigation photography should include images of the outside of the fire-damaged home, and also pertinent interior areas, structural features and contents (furnishings, appliances, security measures, heating equipment, etc.). The investigator should also photograph evidence relating to the cause and extent of the fire, such as the source of ignition, depths of char, and signs of burn patterns.
Videos of the exterior and interior of a fire-affected home can help provide additional credibility, objectivity and context for any photographs that were taken.
Creating a fire-scene floor plan is another important and indispensable way of documenting the possible cause of the fire and the extent of any damages. This type of diagram adds another objective perspective, to help insurance adjusters understand the fire scene when dealing with insurance claims. And if arson is suspected, a floor plan will enable a judge and jury to better understand the evidence being presented in court. It also will help confirm the thoroughness of the investigator’s fire crime scene investigation process.
This can be accomplished quickly and easily – and with professional results – by using a floor plan app loaded on a mobile device. The investigator can use the app to sketch each room of a fire-affected home to diagram the room’s shape, dimensions and key features (windows, doors, fireplace, furniture, appliances, etc.). Then the room drawings can be combined to create a complete floor plan, if needed.
Many investigators prefer to choose a floor plan app that also has a reporting feature – one that allows easy creation of a fire investigation report template. This template lets the user create a fire-scene incident report, complete with photos, in a short amount of time at any fire-affected home. This means observations and conclusions can be captured in real time, to enhance reporting speed and accuracy! Anyone wondering how to write a fire investigation report in the most efficient way possible should definitely look into downloading a floor plan app.
A residential fire scene investigation involves multiple steps. These include taking safety precautions, interviewing witnesses, examining the scene, and gathering visual documentation. Photos and videos are critical components of that documentation, and important fire investigator tools for reporting purposes. But a detailed floor plan also is essential to help others understand the details of a fire scene. And the fastest, easiest way to create a floor plan onsite is by harnessing the power of a high-quality floor plan app. A good app will also allow fast development of a fire investigation report, to wrap up any investigation quickly and accurately.
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