An Introduction to Fire-Related Death Investigation
Written by Matthew M. Lunn   

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DEATHS FROM FIRES and burns are ranked as the third leading cause of fatal home injury, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). In 2010, there were 2,640 fire-related deaths, not including fire fighter who died in the line of duty. Those deaths equal, on average, a fire-related fatality in the United States every 169 minutes.

fire related death investigation matthew lunn fatality arsonFire fatalities present their own unique challenges to the scene investigator. This article will explore various scene considerations, evidence collection, and a proper body examination for the medicolegal death investigator.

When a fire department responds to an active fire, their immediate concerns are to save life and property. In their attempts to mitigate the situation, the arriving fire crews may move objects or open the doors and windows. It goes without saying that the scene investigator will be dealing with an altered scene regardless of the circumstances. In order to perform a proper scene investigation, there are a a few best practices to be considered.

The first thing a medicolegal death investigator should do when arriving on scene is consult with the first-arriving fire unit. The valuable information they provide can help determine the direction of your investigation and tip you off to possible evidence of foul play. The first question should be what the first-arriving fire unit’s officer saw. The answer should be similar to what was reported to dispatch upon arriving on scene. An example would be, “Two story, residential property with extensive smoke and fire noted from the upstairs bedroom.” It is important to know if smoke or flames were visible from the exterior of the structure, and how much of the structure was involved. A rural structure that was fully involved upon arrival might not be suspicious because there might not have been anyone around to notice the initial stages. If the structure was fully involved upon arrival in a densely populated area it may be a sign an accelerant was used since the fire should have been noticed in its earlier stages. It is also important to ask what objects were moved in the affected rooms. Things might appear disheveled in a scene after the mitigation of the fire, but this could just be artifact from the responding fire units. Additionally, ventilation methods are important issues to discuss with the fire command staff to differentiate between damage caused by an offender entering or exiting the structure, and damaged caused by the fire fighter.

When it is time to enter the residence and do a scene walk-through, it is best practice to accomplish this with the fire investigator present. He or she is a useful tool in determining if the scene is suspicious or if another cause, such as an electrical problem, could be to blame. It should be noted if anything in the structure does not belong; the most obvious example would be a product that could be used as an accelerant that you would not normally find inside a home. If the decedent is found in the room that has the most fire damage, it is a prudent idea to document some of the fire load, or materials, in the area. This is because certain items can give off a toxic gas when they are ignited. If the decedent is found in a room with little to no fire damage it is important to know if it makes sense for the individual to be found there. It is possible they were simply trying to exit the structure and succumbed to toxic gases.

After initial photographs are obtained, it is a good idea to place a clean white sheet or a new commercially made evidence sheet next to the area where the decedent was found. After the decedent is placed on the sheet, additional photographs can be taken with the benefit of the white background for contrast. If an accelerant is suspected, any clothing that flakes off the body can be placed directly into a new paint can. The can should be of appropriate size for the amount of clothing it is meant to contain and should not be filled more than 75% full. This will allow for optimal conditions for the clothing to be tested for volatiles in a crime laboratory.

In the case of a suspicious death, special consideration should also be given to working with a fire investigator to sift through the debris in the area where the decedent was located.

Once back at the office, full-body radiographs should be obtained in order to determine if the victim had been injured or assaulted; if the fire was set intentionally, it could be that the arsonist was trying to cover up a crime. These x-rays are also needed for possible dental comparison to antemortem films, as well as locating implanted medical equipment that could lead to identification by looking up the serial number with the manufacturing company. The last essential step in a fire-fatality investigation is to test a blood sample for the presence of carbon monoxide. The time the sample is drawn — pre-autopsy or at the time of autopsy — should be coordinated with the forensic pathologist handling the case. A helpful hint is to draw the sample from the femoral vein with an arterial blood gas syringe. A heparin disk inside the syringe attached to the plunger will help prevent the sample from coagulating.

All of these steps, along with a complete autopsy, are essential to properly investigate a fire-related death.

Case Study

A 23-year-old African-American female was found in an interior closet of her residence, bound and deceased, after a residential structure fire was extinguished. Additionally, a ligature was noted around the decedent’s neck. The woman’s family members had previously reported her missing. The decedent was nude and had severe thermal injuries to her entire body. There was significant fire damage to the entire residence. In a room adjacent to the closet where the decedent was found, investigators located a gas can and a lighter. Assistance was requested from the state level and, with the aid of an arson dog, specific areas were identified where an accelerant was present.

At the coroner’s office, full-body radiographs were essentially negative and dental radiographs were obtained for identification purposes. At autopsy, sharp-force injuries were noted to the decedent’s trunk. Minimal soot deposits were noted within the airway. This, in combination with the blood carboxyhemoglobin saturation level being less than 5%, indicated that the decedent was dead prior to the start of the fire.

While the presence of a ligature and the bindings are an obvious sign of foul play, this case is a classic example of multiple agencies working together in order to effectively manage a homicide investigation and properly collect evidence with a team approach. The responding fire units had no idea that when they were dispatched for a residential fire assignment that it would develop into a homicide investigation. After their initial concerns of saving life and property were over, their overhaul of the residence was minimal, yet effective. Once the decedent’s body was located, the responding unit exited the structure and reported it to law enforcement. This allowed for the preservation of as much evidence as possible. With the assistance of the fire investigator, local and state law enforcement, and the coroner’s office, the scene investigation was handled in an effective and unified manner in order to achieve the best results.

Whenever there is a complex scene that requires the assistance of multiple agencies it is always in the best interest of all parties involved to handle the case in a unified manner, instead of each department working separately. It saves time, and creates an environment where there is less of a chance for errors in the collection of evidence.

About the Author

This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it is a Medical Investigator with the Arapahoe County Coroner’s Office in Centennial, Colorado. The author previously worked at the Iowa Office of the State Medical Examiner, and during that time, was a firefighter and paramedic for the City of Johnston (Iowa) Fire Department.

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