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Investigating Fire Scenes When Bodies are Still Present

Hello and welcome to episode three of "Dehaan On Fire" brought to you by FireWise Learning Academy. In today's discussion Dr. John DeHaan discusses the issues and practices that change when the bodies of fire victims are still on scene during an investigation.

To read the transcript of this video, scroll down past the video or click here!

YouTube Video:

- Today's topic is a difficult one. When a fire occurs, causing a fatality, or fatalities, and the remains of the victim, or victims, are still on scene, does that change how the fire investigator approaches the investigation of that fire? With the answer to that, let's join Dr. John DeHaan in conversation.

- [Tim Davis] Hello Dr. DeHaan. We've reached episode three of DeHaan on Fire and I'm really enjoying the process. How are you finding it?

- Good day. I'm really pleased to have a chance to reach a different audience with some of the topics that I consider really important and knowledge that I've gained over a lot of years of sometimes making the wrong choices.

- And we're hoping that people send us their questions or ideas for topics and, if you want to do that, we'll be giving you information at the end of this video, how to do that. Today, we're going to talk about something that is probably one of the more difficult times for a fire investigator and that is investigating a fire where a fatality has taken place and, in all fire investigations, there's a proper order or sequence to proceed in the investigation. Dr. DeHaan, just to start off, when investigating a fatal fire, is there a different sequence or different factors involved as approaching a fire where there isn't a fatality?

- Well, there can be because the focus of an ordinary non-fatal fire investigation is you're working from the outside in, from the least damaged area to the most damaged area, with the point of identifying the area of origin, and then identifying the first fuel ignited, and the potential ignition source in that location, and you're documenting evidence as you close in on it. When you have a fatality, there is often a great deal of pressure to kind of alter that sequence to focus on the body first, and that can be a mistake. In fact, it often is because you then compromise the documentation and the preservation of the scene away from the body and so, it's really important to, when you have a reported fatality, to close the scene off, keep the lookie-loos out, minimize foot traffic, and suppression of the fire in the immediate vicinity until you've had a chance to document what it looks like, even if it's just a few photographs taken early on in the event, and as soon as you can after your arrival. And it's because of those pressures, fire investigators are often presented with scenes in which, what I call, the tag, bag, and drag syndrome has overtaken the responders there. It is that, well, we've had a fire, we've put the fire pretty much out, we have had a fatality, and gee, we feel sorry for this person or we're kind of embarrassed because we've had this fatality, and we wanna get it out of the sight of everybody as soon as possible for privacy reasons, or personal respect to the victim, or whatever, and this happens, of course, in ordinary homicide scenes even without a fire, but with a fire, you have a major issue that the position of things relevant to the body is really critical because you've had, obviously, a lot of things happen. You've had the fire, you've had suppression, maybe you've had an attempt at rescue and things like that, or other occupants escaping, and maybe having interaction with the decedent during the fire event and so it's important to basically freeze the scene. Yes, if the body is visible from the outside, then you can erect barriers, for instance, these portable barriers around it. If you have an issue where it's visible from overhead where you might have, you know, news videos interfering with the scene and you wanna preserve that, then you erect a tent or a canopy over the body. You see some of the best efforts, especially in British crime scenes, where they erect the barricades, or they put a canopy over the body. What you don't want to do is put a blanket over the body or something like that, unless it's a sheet from your rescue facility because then you run the risk of altering trace evidence especially and contaminating the body. You never wanna do that with a body, whether there's been a fire or not 'cause trace evidence can play an important role and you can alter it or add to it confusing elements if you cover the body. So you basically lock down the scene and basically, the last thing you wanna deal with is the body. You wanna preserve the area around the body and use your normal processing, clear the areas, the peripheral areas, and then work your way in towards the body, much in the same way that an investigator focuses in on the apparent point of origin as they process the scene and they look at the indicators and things like that. You know, you get all kinds of issues. Well, if the building is still on fire, and they may not be able to stop it, then, yeah, then you may wanna change the order around and get some pictures taken and get the body out of there as fast as possible.

- Now, helmet cams that a lot of departments are using--

- Yes, and that's certainly a new innovation since I was active in seen responses, and that's helped a great deal. That was important, for instance, in the Grenfell Tower fire where the first responders, you can see, with their helmet cameras, you can see what they saw when they kicked the door to the kitchen where the fire started, and how quickly they were able to knock the fire down with just a single hose stream, and then, especially important, was, as their firefighter progressed into the scene, in through the kitchen, you see him lean out through a broken window and realize he can see fire in the cladding below him and then he looks up and you can see him kinda shudder and he can see fire in the cladding moving up the building. Long before anybody on the ground outside the building could see what was going on, he realized that there was a problem.

- So, for first responders who are watching this and whose departments use those helmet cams, if that was a situation where they needed to remove the body because of the building still being on fire involved in it perhaps to the point, later on, it's going to collapse, it would be good for them, not only to be aware that their camera is capturing evidence, but maybe even, within the realm of safety for themselves, make just a concentrated effort to direct their cameras around just to see that scene where the body is.

- That's right because, you know, any image you capture, yeah, it may lead to questions later about, well, where was that, you know. Was it on top of the body? Was it alongside the body and it got kicked over during suppression or dislodged by a hose stream? That's another issue, of course, that we run into with bodies is that many departments go into a building or even outside through the window attack with a straight stream, high pressure straight stream, and a high pressure straight stream, even from an inch and a half line, can dislodge pieces of a charred body and alter it's condition forever, and so we warn fire personnel that if you do suspect a body, don't use a straight stream, use a fog stream around it until you can assess the situation.

- We have an okay time considering that there's evidence on a body when they're taken away for an autopsy or they're in a lab, but they're actual presence and a number of factors in the building, there's evidence there, just the body, as harsh as it is for some people to hear, the body is evidence and where they are and position and other things can really tell a lot about what's happened to cause that death or factors that mitigated happening it.

- Well, that's right. One of the instructions that I emphasize in teaching fatal fire investigations is that the critical area around a body is literally within arm's reach of the body all the way around the body and you wanna document what the body looks like when first discovered, and then you process that body, photographing, or preferably high quality photography, image photography, as you get ready to move the body because what's around it, or especially underneath it, or in their hand, may be a clue as to why is this person here, you know. Are they holding a flashlight? Are they holding the phone? They got the car keys, the dog leash, the family Bible? You know, why was this person trapped in the fire? Why didn't they get out sooner? And things as incidental as what's in their hands or what's underneath them, may be an important clue to the sequence of the fire, whether their involvement was prior to the start of the fire, or very late during the fire event, or what they were doing.

- And that's gonna be important information that could possibly lead to a proper conviction of someone who has committed a crime, or avoid an improper, wrongful conviction of someone who didn't have anything to do with it because of the evidence that's right there.

- Exactly, or even to answer the questions from family. You know, well, "Why did aunt Georgia not get out?" "Why was she there?"

- We think she went back for the cat.

- She was looking for the dog or the cat, you know, and got trapped. That may help the family understand what's going on. So you're looking at the human behavior, just like every crime scene. You're looking at the human behavior and what's going on. In a fire, of course, it's very complicated and it's unfortunate when investigators give in to the pressure of the police, or the prosecutor, or the public, or the press, and say, "Well, we have to get the body out right away." Well, you know, my instruction is, it's tragic but this person is gonna be late for lunch one way or another, and another couple of hours to do the scene right, they make all the difference to getting the right answers for the right reasons, and there's no extra cost or risk involved. As I said, if the building is still on fire and you're gonna lose the building, then maybe you do have to tag, bag, and drag, but I've seen so many scenes where the fire is out, there's no structural collapse looming, and gonna take our time and process the scene correctly in proper order, and that's the way you get the right answers for the right reasons.

- Now, if it's a case of having to, like we're talking right now, having to remove the body because the building is still very much involved and what are some of these special considerations to give? We've already mentioned about documenting, if you have a helmet cam. Obviously, you're not gonna get someone like me with a camera to run up there and take a few pictures because that's not gonna be an environment that I'm gonna survive, but are there are other things to consider, keep in mind, in that situation?

- Well, you know, a lot of firefighters, especially, say, "Well, you know, there's always a distinctive odor." For instance, of a burned body, and it's a terrible odor. Well, when you actually burn bodies, human cadavers, like I have over the past five or 10 years, the smell is typical of, you know, meat on an outside barbecue sort of odor. The worst smells in fire scenes come from things like natural latex pillows or mattresses. Those stink to high heaven, even as a smoldering fire, no signs of flame showing. You're trying to reconstruct how did this fire start. Well, if you disturb the body so that you don't see or you don't capture information about how they're dressed, what the fabric was, in terms of how susceptible was it and were they smoking, did they have smoking materials in their hand? Did they normally have a oxygen line? Were they under medical treatment for lung issues and things like that? That can alter the dynamics of the ignition itself, as well as the control OF flammability of fabrics and things like that. So, it's impossible to predict what's important. What is important is to minimize the disturbance around the body and work your way in towards that, and then that can be your focus as you layer down on top of the body and then capture it as it's moved, and things like that, rather than just go in and yank the victims out without any preservation at all. I had a tragic fire in Florida many years ago and there were six people, two adults and four kids, trapped in an upper bedroom, and the report was, "Well, there was still a fire "in this old Victorian and so they dragged "all six victims down the stairs." And so the issue was, well, where were they at the time of the fire? "Well, they were all together." Well, was there a door in between? You know, there were two rooms up there. Who was where? "Well, we didn't make that observation. "We just got them out of there." Well, would have been a lot easier, and it turn out to be, ultimately, it was going to be a prosecution as a homicide, and as we completed our investigation at the request of the District Attorney, we managed to show that there were a number of features that showed that it was an accidental fire, more likely an accidental fire, than anything else and that it didn't start the way they originally first thought. You know, that was despite the destruction of the scene.

- And that's so important to remember because firefighters, first responders, they're human, they're going through tremendous pressure. They're in a terrible environment, and then, there's the emotional factor as well. So we certainly can't blame people for being human but part of our goal in this YouTube channel and podcast is getting information out there so that we can, so that people can pre-process what's going on and contribute to the investigation and help get things sorted out in finding the truth.

- That's right, exactly. You're, as either a firefighter, or as a fire investigator, you're the one person who has the best opportunity to do it right. You know, as we tell crime scene investigators, you have all kinds of chances to screw up a scene investigation. You got one chance to do it right, and that means getting all the other stuff correct, and so, sometimes that makes the difference. But certainly, especially with the quality of digital photography today, and it's availability, even one-handed, taking pictures of a scene that's under threat somehow, that's really good. But your responsibility as the investigator is to preserve the best evidence and coming in and tearing the building apart so that you can get a body out without any kind of proper documentation, that's a big mistake. Yes, it is emotional. A lot of firefighters have an emotional reaction to seeing a body and will make every effort to get it out, in a way, as quickly as possible because it's a reminder that they failed in their primary directive and that is to save lives, and here's a reminder that, well, we didn't save this life. And so, even if they don't want to admit it, they go, "Well, yeah, maybe that's why "we wanted to get it bagged and tagged and dragged "as quickly as possible."

- And even in those circumstances where it was too late to do something, we still have that human nature that wants to just do something, whatever we can, to make something better.

- That's right.

- So we've talked a lot about what to do after you show up at a scene of a fatal fire. Is there anything that can be done to prepare for the event of a fatal fire and showing up that can be done even before the fire happens?

- Well, a lot of it is having the training and procedures in hand beforehand, like a memo of understanding, if you're thinking of dealing with the medical examiner's personnel, or the coroner's personnel who are there to recover the body. Sometimes they're under time constraints and things like that. I remember a homicide scene and we were processing the body which is down in the crawl space under this residence, and the detectives are looking at their watch saying, "Well, when should we call the coroner?" And I go, well, why haven't they been called now? "Well, 'cause they're gonna rush out here "and they're under time constraints "cause they're really overbooked "and so they're gonna wanna come in "and take the body away as soon as possible "so give us a heads up or leave before we call them." So we processed the scene, it was very successful, and that was my first warning as to pre-planning, and that goes especially true for the physical evidence, and some medical examiners, for instance, have a very strict policy: You don't touch anything on the body. And others, you know, don't care if you're searching a body for identification or whatever, that's okay. But the best thing to do is make sure you understand what the other experts' roles are in that so that you don't mess up or have the wrong expectations for what they're gonna do.

- Now that's wise advice that could potentially help avoid a lot of problems and actually help the others on that collective team be up to snuff on the element of fire investigation 'cause they're so used to examining bodies at scenes but here's a unique situation and a unique environment.

- Yeah, and it's exactly right, and a lot of people weigh in, unfortunately sometimes experts, think, well, because there's a fire, we don't have to worry about trace evidence, and tool marks, and shoe prints, and things like that. Well, yeah you do 'cause a lot of those can survive a fire and suppression, and that's an important consideration. Remember that those things can and do survive and that you're the only person, if you're processing the scene, you're the only person who can screw it up, and so, you know, be forewarned that it's potentially there and take your time, process the scene just as you would if there hadn't been a fire there.

- So, it needs intention and professionalism and someone who's going to lead and direct with a plan.

- Exactly right.

- Well, thank you very much for that excellent advice and instruction coming from your experience. It's a difficult topic and, certainly, a difficult experience for those that have to face it but we are here to offer that support through this channel, through this podcast, and through the course that we have at FireWise Learning Academy on arson and exposure investigation. Dr. DeHaan, thank you for your time and for being with me in this episode.

- My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

- Thank you again for tuning in to DeHaan on Fire and for all of the feedback that we've been receiving. Remember, if you have a question for Dr. DeHaan or a comment about this channel, please leave it in the comment section below, and don't forget to subscribe and ring the bell for notifications, set your devices to receive those notifications, so you'll get updated as soon as we add new content to this channel. Until next time, I'm Tim Davis, the host of DeHaan on Fire. On behalf of FireWise Learning Academy, thank you for watching.