Interviewing and Timeline Skills Your Fire Investigation Expert Needs

TASA ID: 1436

During investigation of a fire, information comes from all around the investigator, who should have a way of assembling and ordering it when the smoke clears (literally) in order to successfully determine the origin and cause of a fire. At a fire scene there is limited time to collect witness statements and details from examination of the scene.  A fire investigator may be at the scene with other investigators, but the opinion formed needs to be solely his or hers. Investigators must take the time to push out the clutter of everyone around them and put everything in its place.

There are plenty of articles on interviewing and asking the right questions, but all can be distilled into the ability to listen.  All too often investigators are tempted to use a form that will contain all the questions with orderly check boxes.  A good investigator conducting an interview with witnesses should put aside the forms for a few minutes and just let the witnesses tell their story without interrupting, and if possible, without distracting witnesses by writing while they speak. If the investigator is constantly writing or interrupting, the witness will often wonder what is so important and start analyzing what he or she is saying more carefully. Fire investigators should just listen and nod their heads that they understand, even if they don't.  Witnesses want to share their excitement, and yes, investigators will often encounter a witness with what I call the "hero complex" that the interviewer must steer carefully around. Once a witness is finished telling his or her story, then the investigator can ask questions- some of which have already been answered.  That first rush to tell a story is of great value to the investigator who listens. Some witnesses may be intimidated by the investigator, and in letting them tell their story, you will often receive more insight and information than an authoritative interview will accomplish.

Investigators don't have to accept as fact all that is said. People can and will try to influence the investigation. If investigators are drawn in to witness opinions, they will end up in the wrong spot at the end of the investigation. Investigators can give weight to witness statements at a later time when all of the evidence is collected and ordered.  Investigators can always come back to that witness later in the day.  I often save something I want to know for the doorknob question- that's when I say thanks for everything and close out, and then as I reach for the doorknob (real or imagined), I turn and say- oh, by the way and ask that question as an afterthought. The doorknob question can often be the one that puts everything else in perspective because the witness thinks he or she is done and answers quickly.

After returning to the office, the investigator starts to sift through what has been learned at the fire scene.  Witness statements, fire department response records, and investigation of the fire scene are all important parts of the collective information that has to fit a fire growth scenario. A timeline lets the investigator order information. Later, if the case goes to trial and the investigator is deposed, a timeline will help keep things in perspective. Those witness statements that were first listened to, and other recorded and observed information, all have to fit, or they begin to smell like fish left in the fridge too long.

A timeline should be the starting point for fire investigations. A large eraser board in an office will work while the case is active. The investigator should take a photo of the board before erasing it and place it in case files.  If done well, a timeline can transform a complicated set of events into a credible path to understanding the fire. If done poorly, a timeline becomes quicksand that will sink clear thinking and distract the investigator from the solution.

A timeline is simple to design and produce, and investigators can have several, especially at the beginning.  A timeline based on the fire department records is a good place to start since it's accurate and readily available. Receipt of alarm, arrival of the first company, a fire ground chief officer taking over, and the dispatch or release of units all are detailed with actual time.  Witness statements, photographs, and video from a local TV station on a second timeline can fall into place around the fire department's recorded events (Is that the chief's car and the fire is venting from the north window When did he arrive? - Bada Bing). I once tracked the fire department water use on an apartment fire based upon when pumpers arrived, setup times and type of lines employed. The fire didn't go out until they had enough water on the fire, plain and simple, as described in fire training manuals.  Finally, there is the fire growth timeline.   Each of these can exist independently in the beginning and be effectively merged into a single timeline later.

Fire Investigators must be careful not to manipulate their timelines to fit their theories.  I once had a fire that had a 15 minute growth from the time the wife left the house to when flames shot out of the roof above the living room.  Fires can grow that quickly, but need a reason, and it nagged at me and was the weak spot in the timeline.  The fire department investigator had taken a statement on when she left for work, but not the length of her commute. I read the wife's deposition, where she had stated that she arrived at work on time that morning and also stated that she left with no flame or smoke in the living room. Then she named the hospital where she worked in another city.  A quick check of MapQuest, and all of a sudden, my fire growth scenario had 45 minutes in which to break through the roof, making it more plausible. I then had a problem with the wife's testimony.  The fire growth on the timeline was more plausible to flashover, and it changed my opinion of the fire from accidental to incendiary. A sister-in-law's deposition about the wife's gambling problems hinted at motive.

In the words of Johnny Cochran, "If it don't fit, you must acquit!" If the timeline has holes in it, the investigator must continue to look for the answers, or the fire will be undetermined. A timeline forces the investigator to look at the facts in the fire growth scenario that must be addressed. A fire is bound by the limits of physics and the fire triangle of heat, oxygen and fuel.  The scientific method limits where you can go with opinions, and when a timeline is part of a fire investigator's methodology, it supports opinions reached.

There are two basic types of timelines- the linear and the comparative.

Linear timelines carry the user through an event that has occurred over a period of time. They typically consist of one subject and one time frame.  The fire department timeline is a linear timeline.

Comparative timelines also carry the user through an event as it occurred over a period of time but contains two or more subjects.  This is the "who saw or did what, when" timeline.

I hold onto individual timelines until I have reached a conclusion about the case and then file them away as a part of the discovery production. In the end, I may merge timelines if possible, but there are some considerations there as well.  A timeline with too much data becomes confusing, and while it's a visual record, it should also be designed to communicate what the investigator knows to others on the investigation team or later in court. Witness statements that are contrary to the timeline are removed after a good vetting against the other data. The timeline can help substantiate why a statement was or should be discarded when the opposing attorney claims it is being ignored.

A timeline is a wonderful demonstrative aid in court. Have it technically enhanced for a large monitor.  There is nothing wrong with having two timelines on the same sheet with the simple linear fire department recorded times on the top and the comparative timeline below. Referencing each solidifies opinions, and everyone can see that opinions are ordered and logical. Attorneys can use timelines to point out key trial testimony that has occurred.  In court, wrap investigators' testimony around the timelines, and they will be more credible.

When designing a timeline, investigators should consider these guiding principles:

1.    Determine what they want to accomplish with the timeline for themselves and in explaining it to others.

2.    Choose the linear or comparative timeline and stay within the bounds for each.

3.    Keep it simple!  Complicated timelines can confuse the entire courtroom, including the investigator.

4.    Establish a visual hierarchy by separating subjects in a definitive way by color, placement above or below the timeline, circles and squares around similar information sources, or any other method that helps to include everything.

5.    The investigator should start with a large timeline. An eraser board or paper works equally well.  Using 11X17 sketchpads with a grid can help keep things more organized. The investigator should start with time 0 on the far left, place fire out on the far right, and fill in intermediate times from there.  If investigators use a large pad, they can hold it up for others to see and use it to explain easily what is happening.

Timelines should be clear and concise so that others can pick them up and understand them.

When a case goes to trial, a timeline can become a teaching tool for the jury. The slick one on the big LED screen will work. However, if the investigator is sitting in the box with his or her hand- drawn timeline introduced as evidence, the jury will buy into the investigator being a real pro and not a mouthpiece for the attorney. Having the investigator hold it up to the jury and put red stars on key points as he or she addresses the jury directly will engage the jury every time over the big fancy LED version. That larger-format sketchpad timeline will stand out from the stack of paper evidence when it's placed on the conference table in the jury room during deliberations, and it will be picked up. That paper timeline will be the one they pass around in the jury room and that the jury bounces opposing testimony against if it's introduced. An investigator who uses a timeline as an investigative tool imparts to the jury key information that sticks.

In fire investigation, the goal is to reach a determination about the fire. A good investigator listens to what others want to say at the fire scene and reduces the facts to timelines to make certain that opinions are ordered, based upon facts, and supported by information collected.

This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.  Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.

This article may not be duplicated, altered, distributed, saved, incorporated into another document or website, or otherwise modified without the permission of TASA.

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