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Witness Statements and Interviews


  1. After visiting the accident site, it is generally best to begin the investigation by collecting witness statements. Anyone involved in the accident should be included. Witnesses are usually the best source of information for determining the sequence of events that led to the accident. Frequently, a unit administrative investigator or law enforcement officer on the site has taken initial statements prior to the investigation team’s arrival. These should not be relied upon as the sole statements from witnesses.

  2. The mental state of the witnesses should be taken into account. They could be experiencing stress or may be traumatized by the accident. They may be on medication and require the approval of a physician before making statements or being interviewed. On the other hand, witnesses frequently are anxious to talk about the accident to anyone who will listen. Providing them with an opportunity to talk may help them.

  3. If the accident causes a psychological burden on a witness, critical-incident stress management services may be needed. Encourage the unit to contact the local Forest Service Employee Assistance Program (EAP) coordinator to arrange for the appropriate counseling services. If at all possible, a witness should not attend a group critical-incident stress debriefing before being interviewed. If the unit manager determines there is some critical need to provide an employee counseling before the team arrives, ask the unit manager to have the witness write a statement before the debriefing/counseling session.

  4. In some situations, family members of injured employees or accident witnesses can help the investigation process by offering insight into character traits or behavior patterns.


  1. To ensure candor, witnesses should be isolated from each other while making individual statements.

  2. Investigators should inform witnesses that the primary purpose for taking their statements is for accident prevention purposes. Let the witnesses know that you cannot assure the confidentiality of their statements. Include the name of the witness, work address, phone number, date, and signature in the statement.


  1. The chief investigator or QTI should prepare the questions for witness interviews. Other investigation team members may conduct interviews at the direction of the chief investigator. Interviews need to be taken in a quiet, private, comfortable location that is free from disruption. Provide frequent breaks. Depending on the amount of information needed, several sessions may be needed to conduct an interview.

  2. Ensure that the name, work address, phone number, date, and signature of the interviewer are included in the document. In some instances, the witness may have to be taken to the accident site or crash scene after the initial interview so the witness can clarify the initial statement.

  3. If employees are concerned that the interview may result in disciplinary action being taken against them, they may request union representation before or during an interview as stated in the master agreement (Weingarten Right). If a representative is requested, stop the interview until representation is obtained.

  4. All interviews should be recorded. An recorder can be used for this purpose. For complex investigations, it is best to have a court recorder who is a notary public or a videotape record of the interview. Always obtain the individual’s consent before recording an interview.

  5. After the interview is documented, the interviewer needs to review it and both the interviewer and witness need to sign that it is correct as stated. If telephone and transcribed statements cannot be signed because of the condition of a witness, timing, or availability, include a statement by the interviewer attesting to the time and date of the interview, followed by the interviewer’s signature.

Conducting the Interview

  1. The chief investigator should determine who will be interviewed. The interviewer begins by asking witnesses for their name, work address, and phone number, position (job title), and their location during the accident. Try to get the witnesses to tell you everything they know without influencing them with your questions. Other questions may refer to the history of events, human factors, equipment factors, or environmental factors. Usually, it is best to begin with general questions and ask specific questions later.

  2. Considerations that should be taken into account during the interview are:

    • Avoid collective interviews (interviewing more than one witness at a time).

    • Whenever possible, limit team members participating in the interview to two members.

    • Do not prejudge a witness. Keep an open mind so you can be receptive to all information, regardless of its nature. Be serious. Maintain control of the interview. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Avoid contemptuous attitudes. Avoid controversial matters. Respect the emotional state of the witness.

    • Place the witness at ease. Explain that the interview is for accident prevention and that you are only seeking the facts related to the accident.

    • Inform the witness that you can’t promise confidentiality.

    • Read the witness’ written statement (if available) before the interview.

    • Allow witnesses to tell the story in their own words (do not interrupt).

    • Be a good listener. Be unobtrusive when taking notes. Maintain your self-control during interviews. Don’t become emotionally involved in the investigation.

    • Investigation team members should coordinate their questions at the direction of the chief investigator or QTI.

    • The interviewer should ask followup questions. Do not assist the witness in answering questions. Diagrams, maps, photos, models, and other items used to clarify information should be introduced at the end of the interview.

    • Avoid revealing items discovered during the investigation to the witness.

Types of Questions

  1. General Questions. General questions are open-ended questions that can help get the witness talking. For example:

    • What did you see?
    • What can you recall?
    • Can you tell me more about that?

  2. Directed Questions. Directed questions get the witness to focus on a specific subject, without biasing the answer. For example: Did you notice any lights on the vehicle?

  3. Specific Questions. Specific questions are needed for specific information (such as information about a particular light). For example: Did you notice any lights on the vehicle? What color was the light?

  4. Summary Questions. Summary questions help witnesses organize their thoughts and draw attention to possible additional information. Restate what you think the witness told you in your own words and ask if that’s correct. Frequently, the witness will add more information.

  5. Leading Questions. Avoid leading questions. A leading question contains or implies the desired answer. Once you ask a leading question, you have suggested what the witness is supposed to have seen. For example: Was a red light flashing?

  6. Techniques That Do Not Require Questions. Some interview techniques do not require questions. A nod of your head or an expectant pause may encourage the witness to talk. To keep a witness talking, say something like “uh-huh,” “really,” or “continue.” Another technique is to mirror or echo the witness’ comments. Repeat what the witness said without agreeing or disagreeing. For example: You say you saw smoke coming from the vehicle?

Sample Witness Interview Questions

  • What is your name, work address, and phone number?

  • What is your duty station and position?

  • What is your technical background or set of skills?

  • How are you connected with others involved in the accident?

  • When did you see the accident happen?

  • What attracted your attention to the accident?

  • When you first saw the accident, where was the vehicle or equipment? Where was the individual involved in the accident?

  • What was the direction of travel of the vehicle or equipment involved in the accident? Where was the final resting place of the vehicle or equipment? (Have the witness draw a diagram, if appropriate.)

  • Were any other witnesses around? Do you know the names of other witnesses?

  • Do you wear glasses or other corrective lenses? Do you wear a hearing aid? What type? Were you wearing your glasses or hearing aid?

  • Would you like to provide any additional information?

Source: USDA

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