Fires are devastating. In addition to the very real danger they pose, they also destroy homes and belongings, and even those who escape safely lose their sense of place. A fire investigation report reviews the fire, describing its origin and cause if that can be determined. Having this information allows government agencies to improve safety standards for buildings and can give families a sense of closure.
Purpose of a Fire Report
Report writing on a house on fire or another type of structure is critical to ensuring your thoughts and conclusions are available for review. In addition to reviewing training materials such as a fire report-writing PowerPoint, you can gain valuable insights on how your department structures reports by asking for a fire incident report sample doc.
In general, though, most fire investigation reports have a similar structure, showing your thorough investigation into the cause and origin of the fire and how you came to your conclusions. Fire investigation reports can be used for several purposes, including insurance investigations and criminal inquiries.
Before You Write a Fire Investigation Report
Although it may be tempting to write your report as you go, and although you should take thorough notes, it is generally best to wait until you have completed your investigation to write the report. This is because if you write your report before you have finished your investigation, it could reflect bias. The two main forms of bias that a fire investigation report could inadvertently include are:
- Expectation bias. This happens when you investigate with a specific expectation in mind and draw your conclusions too early without considering all the options.
- Confirmation bias. This is similar to expectation bias, but it means that you conduct the entire investigation with an eye toward supporting a specific outcome. You have a belief about the origin or cause of the fire, and you conduct the investigation to support this outcome.
Keep good notes while you investigate, either on paper or by recording your thoughts. Once your investigation has concluded, write your report in clear language that could be understood by the general public.
Read More: How to Format an Investigation Report
Writing the Introduction
The introduction is the section that tends to vary the most from report to report, so confirm with your department as to what specific information should be included. At a minimum, the introduction should include:
- The case name or number
- The date of the incident
- The type of incident
- The name(s) of the investigators
You may also include a summary or abstract. This is a brief summary of what will be included in the full report. If your report has a summary or abstract, include the date and time of the incident and a timeline of what occurred along with your findings.
Description of the Structure
The next section is a description of the structure or vehicle. For buildings, this should include the age of the building, the type of building, the style of construction, a description of the foundation and roof and the number of floors.
Vehicles should have similarly detailed information, including the vehicle identification number, the make, the model, the color and the license plate information.
Background Information and Timeline
Many fire investigation reports include detailed background information, such as the weather conditions at the time of the fire, including temperature, wind speed and wind direction. Reports also describe the response of the firefighters, including when they arrived, what equipment they brought to the scene and how the department operates.
If there were casualties, they should be described in a straightforward, accurate manner including the cause of death as determined by the coroner. Personal information can be redacted before your report is released to the general public.
Including Witness Information
Interviewing witnesses is critical to conducting a thorough investigation. In this section, summarize each interview, including the name of the person, his role in the report (neighbor, firefighter, etc.) and what each person said. You may want to use a combination of direct quotes and summaries.
Exterior and Interior Observations
Next, walk your reader through the damage to the structure or vehicle. Use clear descriptors, such as compass directions, to orient your reader to the exterior walls. Note the areas where the damage is the most extensive as well as other pertinent information such as the location of utility meters and fuel sources.
Interior observations should also be detailed, and each room should be described. Note the areas with the most damage as well as burn patterns or smoke patterns. You should describe the room of origin with the most detail.
Many reports include labeled pictures for clarity, which can also help your readers visualize the contents of your report.
Listing the Evidence
Evidence is sometimes reviewed in its own section, including descriptions of the items in evidence and pictures if possible. Evidence is also sometimes included in other sections of the report as it is observed and collected. Your local department can tell you the preferred method for reviewing evidence in your fire investigation report.
Origin and Cause Determination
After examining the scene, the evidence and witness statements, share your methodology for determining the origin and cause of the fire. Include details such as:
- The first material ignited
- Heat sources responsible for heating the material
Describe how the area of origin was excavated and examined, what debris was found and where, any odors you noticed and the burn patterns present. These details can support your conclusion. If the origin is a piece of furniture or an appliance, note any unusual burn patterns, how the metal responded to the heat and other details.
Walk your readers through your process of determining the origin and cause. Keep in mind that not all of your readers will have a scientific background, so take the time to explain scientific terms either as footnotes or within the text itself.
Summary or Recap
The final section should be a concise description of your findings. Using bullet points can help clarify your points. State the origin clearly and state that while it is your opinion, it is based on thorough analysis and scientific methodology. Your department may also require you to include a fire classification, including whether there was any foul play or arson.
If you can’t definitively state a conclusion, you can say that the cause is undetermined. The cause may be determined at a later date, and walking through your process of elimination is helpful to readers of your report.
Finalizing Your Report
You may want to have a colleague review your report for grammar issues and scientific accuracy. If you collaborated with other investigators, you may want to share the report with them as well.
Once your report is finalized, print it on official letterhead. Compile an appendix of any supporting materials that you would like to include in your report, such as additional photographs or consultant reports. Sign the report and submit copies to the appropriate parties.
- Psychology Today: What Is Confirmation Bias?
- Illinois Chapter of International Association of Arson Investigators: Report Writing for Fire Investigators
- California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection: Investigation Report
- Oakland Fire Department: Origin and Cause Report
- National Fire Protection Association: Fire Investigation Summary
Melinda Hill Sineriz has been writing professionally for over 10 years. She worked as an editorial assistant for Forward Movement Publications in Cincinnati, Ohio. She wrote for several years for allmusic.com and edited and wrote a chapter for a book with Wooster Press. She graduated from Miami University in Ohio with a Bachelor of Arts in English. She has a master's degree in teaching.