The significance of the damages and losses brought by fire incidents is beyond any expression of human measurement, thus, the fire responders and investigators are always tasked with challenging accountability that begins from the incidence response to the cause investigation. The fire needs to be extinguish, not only to prevent further damages to the property and protect the victims’ lives, but also to protect the integrity of the evidences that will be use to understand the root cause of the incident, as some fire investigation escalates to civil or criminal charges.
While the fire department’s investigation results are assisting the judiciary of the government to conclude the issues brought by the parties involved, the jury’s decision is equally improving the fire department’s standards and practices towards these incidents, from the initial response to complex forensic investigations. The prevention of the tragedy, though exigent in nature, is the goal and hope of every party involved, even the fire department.
The paper discusses the laws and different court rulings that affect the fire response and investigation procedures. It particularly discusses the analysis and investigation methodology employed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology over the collapse of the New York’s 7 World Trade Center in September 11, 2001, including the investigation results and the responses of the government and other interested bodies from the investigation results.
Laws and Court Rulings Related to Fire Investigation and Analysis
The scope analysis of the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution during several court proceedings has found its way to fire incidents and investigations that happened in the past. These amendments have been applied to the responses and investigations of succeeding fire incidents. Among the amendments are the following:
1. Fourth Amendment
Governing all searches and seizures of person or of property, this amendment of the Constitution, states that any search or seizure must have a probably cause and must have a support of oath or affirmation about the details of the search or seizure. (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2002)
While the Fourth Amendment limits the authority of the government over the privacy of the citizen, including his or her properties, even at any cases of emergency, the Fire Department response team are excluded from this law, only during these emergency, better termed as exigent circumstances; thus the responders and investigator are allowed to enter the private premises without any warrant. The exigent circumstance exception spans from the actual response time of the Fire Department until the cause investigation.
In 1978, during the Michigan v. Tyler case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled out that the fire department, even without search warrant, has the authority to enter, and remain on, the property under the exigent circumstances until the emergency is over, and even after the fire has been extinguish, within a reasonable time. (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2002). The Fire Department was given this exception, not only to prevent further loss or damage of life and property, and to determine the cause or origin of the incident, but also to prevent damages to the, or protect the, integrity of the evidences that will be used to understand the cause and origin of the fire incident (Herrera, 2003).
While this exception is seemingly advantageous for the fire responders and investigators, fire department’s accountability over this kind of emergencies, and even during the cause analysis and investigations, becomes heavier. The pressure for the fire department comes by controlling the fire intrinsically, for even with the yellow fire tape all ready set – up, the emotions, intentions and reactions of other people over this kind of scenario could have significant, and sometimes unexpected, effects as revealed during past fire investigations and court proceedings. The media, the victims, and the other civilians within and near the scene are some of the additional factors that the fire responders need to control. For the involvement of the media in fire incidents, according to the twenty – two year veteran of San Diego Fire Department, Fred Herrera, “The courts have not defined a clear-cut answer that covers all of the contingencies involved. Differing opinions have occurred at all judicial levels and vary widely from state to state.”
In 1999, during the the Wilson v. Layne, the Alabama Supreme court ruled out that the media who accompanied a federal marshal with an arrest warrant violated the Fourth Amendment, while, the Florida Supreme Court ruled out, during the Florida Publishing Co. v. Fletcher, in 1976, decided that the photographer ride – along of a fire marshal into a fire scene did not illegally enter a property (Herrera, 2003).
2. Fifth Amendment
Best known as pleading the fifth, this amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the suspects from self – incrimination, thus giving possible immunity to uncover the cause of, say, incendiary fire incidents (Head). Although during the court proceedings for the Lionti v. Lloyd’s Insurance Co. case, in 1983, where an employee, who allegedly had arguments with the employer, whose business was in financial crisis (the arguments were used as the probably cause for the alleged arson), invoked the Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, the jury still found the employer’s right of no heavy significance to reach the court ruling, since the court favored the testimony of one of the investigators hired by the insurance company. The private investigator testified that the suspected arsonist, the employee, had told the investigator, outside the courtroom, how the employer was suggested by the same employee how to set up the arson (Murphy, 2007). It is true that the Fifth Amendment could be used as a shield for the suspects or anyone in the courtroom, but the counsel nor the investigators should not lose the resources to dig into the truth behind the fire incidents, for that matter.
3. Sixth Amendment
Stating the privilege of a citizen to speedy trial, not in shady manner, including the right to have of counsel from an attorney, and the accused’s right to face the prosecuting witness, this amendments sometimes puts the fire responders and investigators into the test of professionalism and integrity. The fire department’s investigation results will define if a case should be filed, and if so, it will also dictate if the case should be civil or criminal, in nature. From the same report, will the actions of the involved party will be based. In some instances, a third party investigation is being hired to gather more information. For the proceedings of possible arson, the fire responders and investigators would normally be invited to testify their finding before the court.
Importance of Fire Analysis and Investigation
While for the victims, the extent of the damages and losses due to fire incident cannot be equated to any monetary value, as what is usually being broad-casted on TV, for the fire responders and investigator who acted on those situations, the incidence can equally be life changing. Several court proceedings related to incendiary fire has proven the sensitivity of any actions, from all the parties involved. A veteran of this field can never let his or her guard off to control the situation for all the accountability at hand.
It is true that when emergency cases happen, it can no longer be avoided, for the very nature and definition of it, but the lessons from these situations are what the fire investigations aim for. Not only the citizen, but also the government and private companies, depends on the information from these investigations, for learning the root cause of the fire incident is vital formulate actions and countermeasures that will lessen the possibility of the incident from happening.
Courtney from Study Moose
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