Science Can Improve the Accuracy of Fire Investigations

As so many of my articles do, this one begins with a conversation I had. Elizabeth C. Buc, PhD, PE, is the owner of the Fire and Materials Research Lab in Michigan. Buc is a strong proponent of the use of science in fire investigations. An internationally known speaker on the topic, she brings a level of professionalism and expertise seldom seen in the fire investigation field. Our discussion made me keenly aware of the need for information and communication on the subject.

Under Scrutiny
I’m sure many fire prevention professionals are so overwhelmed with day-to-day duties (including budget reductions) that they have little time for monitoring news. But the science of fire investigations (or lack of it), particularly arson cases, is drawing an increasing amount of media scrutiny that we should be aware of.

In May, the ABC News program 20/20 did a story on people who may have been wrongfully convicted of arson. One example: Curtis Severns, who was convicted of starting an arson fire in his gun shop in Texas. Covered in some detail in The Texas Observer by journalist Dave Mann, the case created controversy because of a disagreement about a common sign of an arson fire: multiple set locations.  

Ordinarily, unintentional fires do not begin in multiple locations at the same time. But some experts have testified that aerosol cans may erupt in a fire, spreading flames to multiple locations. This can give the impression of a deliberately caused fire, when in actuality the multiple fire locations occurred after the fire was underway.

In another article for the Dallas Morning News, journalist Christy Hoppe reported on the results of an independent investigation conducted by the Texas Forensic Science Commission. That report noted that how we determine that fires are intentionally set is sometimes based on faulty and obsolete myths about fire behavior.

Example: Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted and executed in 2004 for an arson fire that killed his own children. But the report calls his conviction into question, arguing that the fire investigation was not supported by modern science.

With so much potential to do harm, is it any wonder that more and more people are calling for higher levels of research and professionalism (including education) for fire investigators? I’m not an expert on this topic, and I’m not trying to disparage any fire investigators. But we ignore the potential for false conclusions at our peril.

Down the Wrong Path
I’m content to let the experts argue the finer points of these cases. To me, the shared lesson is our need to increase our understanding of fire behavior and interject more science into fire investigations.

Arson isn’t the only problem. It’s common for insurance companies to hire their own fire investigators and for subrogation suits to be brought over what kind of equipment failure led to a fire and who should be paying the bulk of the fire losses involved. Improperly applied investigation techniques may lead to improper product liability conclusions as well.

Further, don’t we want to know what really happens in fires so that we can learn how to best prevent them? If we’re basing our prevention efforts on false assumptions, the steps we take to prevent fires may well be unsuccessful–not as bad as sending an innocent person to jail, maybe, but still a false conclusion that steers us in a bad direction.

If you’re interested in learning more on this topic, there’s a wealth of additional information online. NFPA 921: Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations is another resource.  

“The International Association of Arson Investigators and the National Association of Fire Investigators are dedicated to improving the professionalism of the field and will continue to push for the advancement of the science of fire investigation. In the meantime, however, you might want to reflect on how investigations are done in your department, and whether more rigorous standards are warranted.

Bottom line: If you still think that just anyone can handle your fire investigations, you’re missing the boat.  

To contact Elizabeth Buc directly, e-mail her at ecbuc@fmrl-llc.com or visit www.fmrl-llc.com.

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