ARSON INVESTIGATION 2
Arson investigation is a process that consists of several steps. The preliminary step in an arson investigation is to find the cause of the fire by determining the point of the fire’s origin. In looking for the point of origin, investigators will examine areas that would be closer to the point of origin, such as the floor and lower areas. In examining these areas, investigators will look for a source of heat and material that was ignited, as those are the two factors that cause a fire to start. After the point of origin has been determined, investigators will then look to see how the fire began, whether it was accidental, natural or purposely started. Investigators look for burn indicators, which are the effects of heat or partial burning that indicate a fire’s rate of development, points of origin, temperature, duration, and time of occurrence and the presence of flammable liquids (Swanson, Chamelin & Territo, 2002). After looking for the burn indicators, investigators will then examine ignition devices that could have started the fire. Ignition devices include matches, gasoline, chemicals, gas, electrical systems and other mechanical devices.
There are several signs that investigators look for that can lead them to believe that arson may have occurred. One of the biggest motives for arson is arson for profit, where the arsonist causes the fire to gain from it financially. In this case, investigators look at the financial stress of the homeowner or business owner. Financial stress includes short term business problems, such as a desire to relocate or remodel, buildup of slow moving inventory, outmoded technology, or the satisfaction of a legal or illegal debt (Swanson, Chamelin & Territo, 2002). Other related financial motives for arson include fraud schemes, such as redevelopment, building rehabitation, real estate schemes, and planned bankruptcy. In addition to financial reasons for arson, some other causes are revenge, spite, jealousy, vandalism, and malicious mischief. Arsonists can start fires to conceal other crimes, for example, destroy any evidence related to burglaries, robberies,
ARSON INVESTIGATION 3
larcenies or even murders. Investigators also examine psychiatric afflictions such as pyromania or schizophrenia that may be related to starting the fire. Finally, fire starts could be children, as authorities on fire-setting behavior believe that repetitive or chronic fire setting by children represents a severe behavioral symptom or psychological disturbance (Swan, Chamelin & Territo, 2002).
Legal entry into a fire scene can involve firefighters at the scene, insurance personnel, witnesses, news media personnel, medical examiners, the owner and any possible suspects. Legal challenges can arise in an entry to a fire scene investigation. These legal issues can include chain of custody, qualifications of experts and standards of admissibility for scientific testing. One of the most challenging areas of legal entry into a fire scene investigation involves the circumstances under which a search and seizure warrant are needed to search a fire scene. For example, a warrant is not required to break down a door to enter a burning home to rescue occupants or extinguish a fire, to prevent a shooting or bring emergency aide to an injured person (Berlin, 2011). As a result, firefighters and arson investigators do not believe that they need a warrant to enter an arson scene and begin to investigate the premises. However, this can cause 4th Amendment problems because there are certain expectations of privacy held by owners. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court found that fire victims have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their damaged property, whether the search is conducted by firefighters or the police (Berlin, 2011). This is a challenging area because the job of the firefighter and the investigator is to stop the fire and determine the cause, but in attempting to determine the cause they may step on the privacy rights of the home or business owners. These and other challenges involving legal entry into an arson scene must be examined by the courts to better assist arson investigators.
Berlin, M.M. (2011). Crime Searches and the Fourth Amendment. ISJ Investigative Sciences
Swanson, C,. Chamelin, N., & Territo, L. (2002). Arson and Explosives Investigations. Retrieved
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