Situational Awareness: There is More to Fire Scene Safety Beyond NFPA 921

Whether you are an insurance adjuster or fire investigator, when out on a loss site, such as a fire scene, it is important to always be aware of your surroundings and maintain situational awareness, the conscious knowledge of the immediate environment and the events that are occurring in it. Situation awareness involves the perception of the elements in the environment, comprehension of what they mean and how they relate to one another, and how you may need to act or react, but more than that, situational awareness is about always keeping yourself and your peers safe through mental preparation.

Situational awareness can be understood as a collection of skills needed to set limits in circumstances that may make us uncomfortable or are possibly even dangerous. It is an awareness of the environment and a basic understanding of how to avoid potentially dangerous situations. When we have a good understanding of situational awareness and we know our mental abilities to survey and understand our surroundings, we gain self-esteem and confidence to trust our instincts.

In the second edition of the International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI) Health and Safety Committee’s manual, Fire Investigator Health and Safety Best Practices, published in May of 2020, there are no recommendations or guidelines as to how fire investigators need to have situational awareness and maintain control of the area where they're working during uncertain circumstances. Additionally, both past and current editions of the NFPA 921 have a chapter dedicated to scene safety. Though this chapter has not been changed much with the newest edition and has very little information addressing potential health and safety events that may occur on job sites.

This is important to note because, in both the public and private sectors, new generations of insurance claims adjusters and investigators are entering the workforce, and as they enter, they are faced with new risks; risks with today’s technology, with public safety, and with issues such as climate change, as well as the ongoing impacts of a global pandemic. Amid all these risks, safety when on a loss investigation remains a paramount concern.

Whether you have been investigating fires for 30 years or for three weeks, the tips below are essential to comprehend and utilize for maintaining situational awareness and keeping yourself and others safe on loss sites.

  • When possible, attend site inspections with others. This may mean other adjusters, investigators, or law enforcement professionals. Keep in mind that anytime you go into a new area, you may be seen as suspicious or a threat, so traveling with others is a good rule of thumb.
  • Clearly identify yourself by wearing company-labeled PPE and providing clearly identifiable signage in your vehicle so that people know you are a hired investigator.
  • Take the time to introduce yourself to neighboring businesses and/or individuals, letting them know that you are conducting an investigation in the area. This is also a good time to ask if they have any information, photos, or videos on the fire.
  • Be aware of your surroundings and immediate environment.
  • Just as you should when entering an unfamiliar building or structure, determine the entry and exit points.
  • Remember the job you’ve been hired to do. These can be stressful situations, but your ability to remain focused on the job at hand will enable you to conduct your investigation safely and effectively.

T. David Harlow is a Principal Consultant for Fire Origin & Cause Investigations | Fire and Explosions | Envista Forensics. His areas of expertise include fire scene analysis, evidence and data collection, monitoring of destructive and non-destructive testing, investigative interviews, scene photography, and ICC and NFPA fire code compliance. He can be reached at 888-782-3473.