Written by Jim Acker, Capt. with the San Jose (CA) Fire Department where he has worked for the past 25 years. He served 10 years as an Arson Investigator and peace officer. He has also worked with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection as a Fire Engineer and a Firefighter. Before starting his fire service career he was a dispatcher for the County of Santa Clara.
How Dispatchers Can Help Investigators Determine Fire Cause and Nab the Perps
Dispatchers. Complaint takers. Call takers. 911 operators. Telephone screeners. These are several job titles of the fire investigator's best friend.
An often overlooked benefit to today's highly trained emergency dispatcher is that they are often a fire investigator's first link to solving what may turn out to be a difficult fire investigation. Often and without realizing it, the person answering the 911 call for help may be speaking to the person responsible for starting the fire. At the very least, persons dialing 911 are early witnesses to the fire and may hold valuable information that no one else has. Before a fire is determined to be arson or accidental, the fire investigator has to examine all possibilities and the smallest verbal clue on a 911 tape may make the difference between determining a fire's origin or not.
After a fire is extinguished and the hoses are put away and the excitement has died down, the fire investigator will interview the involved parties. Often by this time, those responsible for starting the fire have had an opportunity to think about their version of the truth and modify it to best suit their needs. This isn't to say that everyone lies to the investigator, but people have a tendency to "sugar coat" the facts or otherwise put themselves in a better light when they may have been responsible for burning down the family home. This is even more common when the responsible party did it on purpose.
When a 911 call is received, the dispatcher answering the call is often getting the reporting party (RP) when they are in a state of panic or near-panic. The RP may be seeing something that they have never seen before (their house on fire) or they may be experiencing something they didn't expect (in the case of arson, a much scarier fire than they had anticipated). Either way, the RP is usually flustered and the dispatcher is in a great position to gather valuable information. Panicked people don't lie very well. They will either tell the truth to some extent or will make up a story that is so ridiculous that when faced with verifying it later, they will be backed into a corner.
As was discussed earlier, fire investigators have to consider all possibilities before determining a fire to be arson. This includes eliminating simple sources like a fire that originates from food on the stove, discarded cigarettes, candles, and the like. This can be compounded when the facts surrounding the fire are leading the investigator in other directions. Take for example a fatal fire originating in a kitchen where the fire investigator found evidence of a drug lab. The fire progressed through the home and killed a teenage girl sleeping in a back bedroom. Further investigation revealed that the persons living there had arrest warrants outstanding for drug activity. Initial evidence may lead the investigator to go in the direction of the drug lab as the culprit in our fire. Considerable energy and resources could be spent trying to prove the case. The actual cause in this case may turn out to be as simple as food left on the stove or a candle left burning. The meth lab on the kitchen table was coincidental. Enter our hero, the dispatcher.
Dispatchers are trained to get the most important information first. "Where are you and what's happening?" are common questions. Going a step further can provide valuable information that can often help solve the fire cause. "What's burning" or "Where did it start?" are such basic questions that they are often overlooked when the RP is hysterically screaming into the phone and the dispatcher wants to move the call into the dispatch phase of the event. Getting a witness to provide this low level information early in the event can be critical to solving what may turn out to be a major fire - be it accidental or arson.
It is recognized that there is not always time to ask each caller a myriad of questions while trying to dispatch the call. "Hang up and get out of the house" is often very good advice for someone calling in a structure fire. If the situation allows it or if the RP is already calling from outside (or can call back after evacuating), a few more questions can often be asked without spending a lot of time or putting the RP at risk. Our present economy has cut most dispatch centers back to the point where the call takers are responsible for completing multiple tasks and there just isn't the time to spend interviewing every RP. Respecting this and keeping the objective in mind, there are four great questions dispatchers can keep in mind when time allows them to be asked. Naturally, these questions would come after the typical "Where are you?" and "What are you reporting?" questions that are automatically asked.
Four Essential Questions to Aid Fire Cause Investigation
- Identify the caller. Even if you don't have time to write it down of otherwise document it, get the name and telephone number of the RP on the audio tape. Even if the caller is the 20th person to report the fire, get their name and number. It could be that they were there when it started. Any investigator will tell you that they would rather talk to 20 callers who can each provide a little bit of information, than one caller who knows nothing at all. On fires where the dispatch center continues to get multiple reports of the same fire, getting each RPs name and phone number on tape can provide dozens of future leads for the fire investigator.
- "Where did the fire start?" In the stress of the moment, you will sometimes get astonishing truthfulness or an unbelievable lie. Both are helpful.
- "How did the fire start?" Like #2, if the answer was only "In the kitchen," you may need to probe a little more to extract the right information. Again, even lies can be helpful. Later, they can be used to show that the truth was hidden.
- "What made you want to do this?" On occasion, people will start fires and then have a change of heart. They call 911, admit what they have done and report the fire. Later, faced with the criminal penalties, they may change their story and say it was an accident. A motive, obtained by a sharp dispatcher on audio tape, plays great in the courtroom.
Not all fires are arson, althought a surprising number of them turn out to be. Fire investigators not only want to catch the arsonists, they also want to know what started even the accidental fires. This provides needed information to prevent future fires through education, prevention, product designs, etc. People who accidentally cause fires will often hide the truth because they are under the misguided idea that fire insurance will not pay off on accidental fires or they fear they might be sued, or any of several other reasons. Accidents happen. It is the fire investigator's job to find out why to prevent them from happening again. Whether arson or accidental, the person answering the next 911 call may become a key player in helping to determine the cause.