Tips for the Fire insurance Investigator: Gaining Cooperation from Public Safety Agencies
Ranking near the top of problems confronting insurance fire investigators, adjusters & attorneys working for property insurance companies is gaining access to preliminary fire department and fire investigation information.
This information is usually available to those who know the ropes. Here is my advice on improving your chances based on twenty-three years of experience as a public safety origin and cause investigator; as the supervisor of a statewide unit of State Fire Marshal investigators and seven years experience conducting property insurance fire investigations.
Let’s begin by agreeing that the civil fire and explosion investigations are, and need to be, independent and stand on their own merit. That said, anyone with experience in this specialized field knows that the public safety agencies almost always possess critical information on the loss that you will need to adjust and fairly evaluate the fire or arson claim. These include the local fire and police departments, State Fire Marshal investigators and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE)
This information includes the identities and present whereabouts of key eyewitnesses such as the initial RP’s (911 reporting parties); the fire and building security conditions on arrival; information on the situation leading to the fire from victim eyewitnesses, as well as physical evidence removed from the scene.
The methods you can use to get to this information can be roughly divided into three approaches; the “Front Door” method, the ‘Going through Channels Method” and the “Reconstruction Method.”
I. The Front Door Method
Most of the time information can be obtained by simply asking the right person.
Experience teaches us that the amount of access any insurance fire investigator gains will vary between organizations and many times between individuals within the same organization. There is a huge misunderstanding inside public safety agencies just how much cooperation is legally permissible or desirable. Take that to the bank.
The key to success is in knowing who will talk with you and how and when to reach them.
The property adjuster is a critical player especially in the beginning phase of a fire or arson investigation. Some adjusters work hard to develop and maintain good relationships with the key public safety fire investigators in their service area. Before you hire an adjuster on a significant loss find out if s/he even knows the names of these fire investigators. The key to a relationship of trust with police and fire service personnel is familiarity and a history of positive contacts.
The next step is finding out which public fire investigator or agency is maintaining the ‘master investigation file’ on a given loss. Public safety fire investigations today always involve the municipality’s fire and police investigators and, depending on the scope of the loss, may also involve State Fire Marshal investigators and ATFE Special Agents who are specially trained in fire and explosion investigation.
One of these fire investigators will have physical possession of what is called a ‘master investigation file.’ Generally this is the person who will have command of all the facts and will be in possession of all the physical and documentary evidence (ignitable liquid residue samples, recorded interviews, etc.).
Keep in mind that while it may or may not be a violation of an internal regulation or a statute for a public safety fire investigator to actually give you a document, or to identify a suspect or witness, it is almost never a violation for him/her to talk to you about the investigation or show you the evidence or the file contents.
Be prepared to take notes.
Personally I think the best time to contact public safety personnel is either at the beginning or at the end of their shift.
It is advantageous to show up in person with your own fire investigation file, a letter of assignment from the carrier or some credentials to help establish your identity. In most situations however much of this work can be done over the phone, especially if you have someone who can vouch for you or if you can name someone in the department who knows both you and the person you are calling.
Begin the conversation by saying your full name and that you are the insurance investigator on the fire at such and such a location.
The hesitancy to divulge information will dramatically increase in cases where arson is the cause or where there was a significant injury, or death, and the investigation is still in progress. Even in these cases, a lot can be learned.
There are three officials in particular who will possess key information about your fire; the lead fire/arson investigator; the first police officer on the scene and the fire department’s fire ground commander on that incident. Each of these will speak with you if you make simple arrangements, time your call appropriately and use the right opening.
The first public safety official on the scene of most fires is a uniformed police officer. S/he will come directly into contact with fleeing victims, will assist in any rescue and often will locate evidence and see where the incipient fire is located. This officer can help you to identify the most important witnesses and tell you what they said to him/her.
The fire ground commander will know a multitude of details such as the fire conditions present on arrival, the physical security of the building, the function of fire protection and alarm assets, the location of the incipient fire and other invaluable information. This individual often will be aware of virtually everything that any of his firefighters know, since they all report to him.
The lead fire investigator, if the investigation was done properly, will know what the first officer on the scene and the fire ground commander knows and a lot more.
2. The “Going through Channels” Method
Some public safety fire/arson investigation agencies have strict rules limiting the release of investigation information. Some federal agencies are famous for obfuscating and a few municipal departments, especially those in urban areas and in wealthy communities, will routinely make it difficult for everyone.
In these cases the rule about knowing someone inside or, using an adjuster or fire investigator who does, is especially important.
When you are forced to go through channels here is a quick summary of recommendations.
My own experience over many years is that the investigator who declines to discuss any one of his investigations with the involved insurance carrier is very often trying to hide a really sub-standard work product.
The best investigators know they are a part of the legal system that is charged with controlling arson and insurance fraud and associated crimes against public law. The best are also aware that the information that they gathered at taxpayer expense is necessary for the system to come to a fair settlement for all parties.
If you run into a non-cooperator you may need to go to a combination of Method #1 & Method #3.
3. The “Reconstruction Method”
Getting a fire investigation off the ground efficiently can usually be accomplished if you initially focus on three sources: media reports, public records and an interview strategy that puts the investigator in direct contact with the persons most likely to have first hand information.
Let’s cover these in order.
One of the very first ‘Golden Rules” I learned as a new fire and arson investigator was that while we public safety fire investigators were working on a new fire, there were intrepid newspaper and broadcast media reporters on deadline working the crowd looking for a scoop for their “front page.”
I learned many, many of these folks had an excellent nose for getting to the core facts and they always had more raw information than appeared in their column. I always begin an investigation by collecting and reading the locals newspaper stories on the fire. There you will get the names of the key witnesses and, very often, a version of the fire’s cause.
The print news stories on the fire or explosion can be obtained locally off the newsstand by the adjuster or online at www.newspapers.com. Another way to get detailed information online for free is by enrolling at your local library for Infotrac.
This free service enables you to gain access to news stories through the same portal that the library itself uses.
You can also access the broadcast media coverage by searching the newspaper or broadcast station’s own website online. You can quickly locate the portals by using www.google.com or another search engine (www.msn.com, www.yahoo.com, etc.).
Simply enter ‘newspaper in Springfield, MA’ or ‘TV in Manchester, NH’ and the search engine will immediately provide a list of all regional media. To reach any one station or newspaper simply copy the stations call letters (www.wcvb.com) into the browser window or search for “Boston Globe” and it will bring you there. Significant recent fires may be news items that you can print out for free or even watch video clips. Fires that are over seven days old will generally require payment of a nominal fee to obtain the file.
Public safety investigators often get ‘raw footage’ for free from the camera crew on the large loss fire that includes different views of the fire building, firefighting operations and street interviews. This tape would probably be in their ‘master investigation file.’
In many cases the insured is also the person who owns or controls the location where the fire occurred. The initial interview of this individual often provides a wealth of details about the facts surrounding the fire, identification and contact information for witnesses and victims, information about hazards, recent work and other vital information.
Another important lesson learned is that the people living or working closest to where the fire actually started will usually have the most important information on its origin and possible (or known) cause. Secondary eyewitnesses can often corroborate (or refute) what the initial eyewitnesses say.
For example, if your adjuster or fire investigator’s initial scene examination reveals the area of fire origin was in Unit 3B in building 101 then s/he would be well advised to focus on locating and interviewing the person or persons who lived or worked in 3B and then, by concentric circles, go next to the people who live or work in the next closest occupancy and so forth.
While this is really very basic common sense you would be absolutely amazed if you saw how infrequently this is done in the real world.
The old gumshoe method of ‘neighborhood canvas’ has broken more cases over the years than many realize. People are responsible for starting most fires by an act or failure to act and others around them know some or all of these details. You can take that to the bank as well.
Of course, there is a wealth of public record information in the Town Hall. Everything from the dimensions of the building, its tax status, known occupants, problems with code violations and much more can be had by simple asking the right clerk.
Hopefully this brief summary will be helpful to you in future fire and arson investigations.