West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service (WYFRS) has a dedicated Fire Investigation Department which works around the clock to establish the cause of hundreds of fires which occur across the county every year.
A large part of their job is to investigate suspected deliberate fires and they often work alongside Police and Crime Scene Investigators to do so. In 2014, our Fire Investigation Officers (FIOs) attended approximately 350 incidents with just over half being deliberate.
Low level deliberate fires (largely secondary such as rubbish or grass fires) are often investigated by the attending crew’s Incident Commander.
Fire Investigation Officers receive specialist legal training and have experience, knowledge and qualifications in correct evidence gathering, which will assist in the legal process in the event that a case goes to court.
Their job is often not a glamorous one and a call in the middle of the night can often mean the start of a laborious process.
On arrival at an incident, as well as health and safety, a major concern is scene preservation.
An FIO’s essential kit is a basic trowel and hand brush to carry out detailed excavations of fire scenes, sifting through layers of fire debris. A camera is needed to gather evidence at a scene and portable lighting is often required.
Once evidence has been gathered from the scene it’s back to the office where fire investigation reports are collated giving cause, origin and development of the fire.
The fire service determines whether the cause of a fire is deliberate or accidental. If it is deliberate ignition police will look to secure a conviction for arson.
An FIO can be required to attend courts of law and/or Coroner’s Court to provide evidence regarding the cause and development of fire.
The role of the Fire Investigation Department is also to establish trends of fires which inform the District Prevention Teams on any issues.
Five minutes with Fire Investigation Officer Lee Miller
‘Investigating a fire is like a jigsaw puzzle, we piece together lots of evidence to produce a final conclusion.’
Lee Miller had been an operational firefighter for 16 years and always had an interest in how the fires he had extinguished had started. A vacancy came up in the Fire Investigation Department in 2014 and he didn’t hesitate in applying.
What are the initial considerations you have when arriving at the scene of a suspected arson?
Firstly, we attend every incident with an open mind, although the Incident Commander may have requested us because they think it is arson, we still have to carry out a full, professional and unbiased investigation to determine the correct cause.
The end result of the investigation could mean that somebody has their liberty taken away, therefore we have to be certain of the cause and this can only be done if the investigation is carried out according to a scientific method. This model is a process of investigation that is followed worldwide and is recognised in the judicial process as the way to do a thorough investigation.
Scene preservation is of paramount importance at an arson incident and is a first consideration along with the safety of ourselves and others. Yes, crews have to put the fire out but we encourage them to keep important evidence intact and undisturbed. We carry out joint investigations with the Police Crime Scene Investigators and they are the ones who will collect any evidence that is required.
What is the process of investigation? How long does it take?
As mentioned earlier, every investigation is carried out using the scientific method. Basically we gather all the information and data that can help us come up with a hypothesis – a theory on how the fire started. We take pictures, interview people, document the incident and excavate the fire debris looking for clues. Once we have the relevant information, we analyse it and develop a number of theories on how it started. Each theory is then tested against the information we have until, ideally, we have only one credible cause left. We frequently challenge our theories with each other in the department to ensure that we are constantly developing ourselves. Dependant on the size of the incident an investigation can vary from a few hours to a number of months.
Does it sadden you to see businesses or community premises, or even schools, become targets of arson?
Of course, even though an incident may not have resulted in a death or injury the devastation to a business, community or an individual cannot be put into context. Fires in businesses or schools could potentially be a huge setback for some people and affect the rest of their lives.
What is the danger to the public of arson?
Obviously the main danger of arson is loss of lives or severe injuries. Given the right circumstances, fires can develop at frightening speeds. What an arsonist may think will just be a small fire could potentially develop into a very serious one. Most fires, no matter how big they are, probably started as a very small one!
Does arson increase at particular times of the year?
Traditionally the Bonfire period is a busy time with a spike in arson incidents and I remember when I was an operational firefighter that secondary fires increased in the summer school holidays. Thankfully the majority of arsons we attend as a brigade are generally small rubbish and car fires etc. Serious attempts to endanger life are not that common.
Is there anything building owners can do to prevent themselves becoming a victim of arson?
Ensure that the perimeter of the premises is secure if possible. Fit CCTV as a deterrent. Make sure that bins and rubbish and other combustibles are away from the premise; if they are set on fire then fire spread to the premise is less likely. Ideally, monitored smoke detection within the premises that gives early warning of fire can limit the fire damage by ensuring early intervention by the fire service.
What is the rewarding part of your job?
Carrying out research and highlighting a particular trend of a fire cause and giving that information to the relevant parties will hopefully prevent a reoccurrence of that incident, therefore potentially saving people’s lives.
Assisting the police in the investigation of a deliberate fire is rewarding if we help in protecting the public from an arsonist.