Investigating Fires

Jon Southgate is a Station Commander, his role being that of Deputy District Commander of the South District of Suffolk’s Fire & Rescue Service

Hello again and welcome to this month’s article where I want to explain how we investigate fires.

You may think the Police would do this, but we have a team of around 20 of us who are trained in fire investigation (FI) at level 2, which means having an in-depth knowledge of fire behaviour, fire science, building construction and how materials react in fire. All Watch Commanders and Crew Commanders in charge of fire appliances are trained to level 1, which is a basic knowledge of the above elements. For anything involving major financial loss, arson, fire fatality or a fire of significant interest, level 2 investigators are called in.

It’s a fascinating role, especially if I get a call the morning after a fire to go and carry out an FI and I arrive to a scene of devastation, and through a process of elimination and excavation slowly reveal the origin of the fire! It’s worth pointing out that the FI role is an additional role to our day jobs and we may get called upon with no notice to attend, that’s when the day’s plans go out of the window!

It may surprise you that FI begins the moment we turn out to a fire! Even finding out the address can start the thought process if it’s somewhere we’ve been before for a fire, but we still have to approach every incident with an open mind and read the evidence when we get there.  The amount, colour and intensity of smoke and flame can tell a story about how the fire is developing, let alone how the fire has spread.  

One specialist asset we have available is a ‘fire dog’; trained to detect traces of hydrocarbon substances like petrol at the scene of a fire. It’s amazing to see these dogs work and they can even search a wide area if a container of accelerant has been used at a fire, then discarded some distance from the incident. Our nearest fire dogs are in Hertfordshire and Norfolk, but we can call them in with their handler if needed, which can save many hours of searching or forensic tests.

We also work very closely with Police forensic services, especially if a crime is considered and more than ever, we take every precaution to preserve the smallest pieces of evidence which may prove crucial if an investigation goes to trial, where we may be called upon to give evidence in court.

See you next month, stay safe!