State fire investigation is a methodical process

Published 8:00 am Thursday, March 7, 2024

BROOKHAVEN — Mississippi’s State Fire Marshal’s Office is currently investigating the Stahl-Urban fire and can not comment on the ongoing investigation. However, the office did elaborate on the process of a fire investigation in general. 

The Office of the State Fire Marshal is a division within the Mississippi Insurance Department. State fire marshal office investigates all fires on state owned property and assists local agencies in investigation of fires on private property. Generally, if a fire is suspicious in nature or if local authorities can not make a cause determination then the office is called to investigate. 

Mississippi’s State Fire Marshal Office has three fire marshal supervisors, nine deputy fire marshals and three K-9s who are on call 24/7 for their assigned counties. 

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Connie Dolan, State Chief Deputy for the Fire Marshal Office, said when an investigator arrives on scene he or she must get consent to enter the property. Consent can be given by the property owner, business or a manager and an equivalent. If no one is available to give consent to search the property then a judge can issue a warrant. 

Investigators start by taking photographs on the outside of the structure. Dolan said these pictures are taken far enough away to get the whole structure in the frame and taken counterclockwise or clockwise around the entire structure. She explained the investigators don’t have to take pictures clockwise or counterclockwise as long as the pictures are taken using the same method at every fire they investigate. Drones can be used to take photos of the structure from above. 

“The Investigator then usually enters the structure through the front door or any other door,” Dolan said. “He or she then locates the area of the structure that has the least amount of damage and begins photographing there. Photographs are taken in a methodical means, in which the investigator will generally photograph each room or area in the same manager beginning in the least damaged area working his or her way to the area of most fire damage.” 

She said extenuating circumstances may impede the methodical approach of photographing at times. Investigative process at the scene may take anywhere from 2-to-3 hours or up to multiple days. Circumstances and size of the structure can play a factor on the time it takes for on scene investigation. 

Dolan said investigators look at every detail of the structure which remains in place to the fire patterns. The fire pattern is any visible or measurable physical change the structure or items inside the structure are affected. 

“Learning fire patterns and investigating a fire scene requires a tremendous amount of training on scene fire investigations and actual observations at active fire scenes,” Dolan said. “If the investigator or any other party involved suspects arson the investigator has the option to deploy one of our accelerant detection K-9s to the scene.” 

K-9s are then able to sniff out and alert on accelerants potentially used to start a fire. Investigators are able to take samples of fire debris if they suspect accelerants may have been used. Samples are then sent to the Mississippi State Crime Lab for analysis. 

Dolan said the office has waited up to six months or longer to get results from the crime lab. The wait may delay a final determination on the fire. Fire investigators are able to use other tools and mechanisms to make determinations on fire scenes. 

Investigations are not complete until the investigator has exhausted all means of determining the origin, area where the fire started, and determining the cause, what actually started the fire. Dolan said a multitude of factors are involved in determining the origin and cause of fire. 

“The origin is the easy part. It is the cause that may baffle many investigators. There are times that an investigation may not be able to determine a cause,” Dolan said.

Investigators then interview possible witnesses to the fire, reviewing camera footage surrounding the structure and any other means to help determine who or what caused the fire. Dolan said there is a plethora of tools and outside resources used to investigate fires but these are not always used on every fire.