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How effective are fire investigations in the United States?  What percentage of investigations lead to convictions?

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As all things in the fire service have, arson investigation has seen historical change.  Modern sciences have given way to different means of investigating fires. Today we are fortunate enough to have forensic sciences including chemical analysis.  Additionally scenes are now flooded by arson investigators that take up entire divisions of fire departments. Federal agencies will contribute specialty teams based on incident basis.   Accelerant sniffing dogs are considered “the norm” in much of the country.


However, these technologies we take for granted today were not always around.  Most, in fact, have become practiced only in recent years. Previously, investigations were not conducted to a necessary level of certainty which resulted in many people being wrongly convicted.  Some were even sentenced to death and executed according to “The Evolution of Fire Investigation and Its Impact On Arson Cases” by John L Lentini. Arson investigation is a difficult task due to the fact that much of the potential evidence is destroyed by fire conditions.

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Scene preservation is potentially the most important tool used by investigators.  Origin must be established. Laboratories that test for chemicals/accelerants on remaining items.  However these are effective means of investigation they are different in a case by case scenario. The size of the fire, accelerants used, investigation process, thoroughness of investigation, amongst other factors make the effectiveness of arson investigation vary.  Overall, according to “The Truth About Arson” by John R Hall Jr only two percent of arsons determinations lead to arrests.

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Their is some degree of difficulty in determining how a fire was started. It can be arson or an electrical defect which caused a fire to start. Also take into consideration that fire can destroy evidence.

There are challenges that a fire investigator faces when investigating a scene. Everything comes into play from collecting evidence to eye witnesses.

Arson fires account for a large percentage of all fires. Also arson related fires can be difficult to detect. Most arson fires go underreported. Fire officials estimate roughly 50 % of all fires may be intentionally set. In the United States, roughly 700 lives are lost each year in arson related fires.

Fire Investigations are effective in the United States, but getting convictions for the perpetrator who set the fire in my opinion is low. Roughly 17 % of arson crimes are solved and they get arrested. The rate of an actual court conviction is less than 2%.

References: › topic-pages › ar…
Arson – Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program –

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