Author(s): Don Bliss. Published on September 4, 2018.

Determined Cause

Across the globe, fire investigations are still more intuition than science. But that’s changing.

Fire investigation is a vital component of fire prevention and mitigation—if we don’t know what happened we can’t learn from our mistakes and could be doomed to repeat them.

In the mid-1970s, I assumed the role of fire investigator in my community. Although I had no investigative experience, back then there was no such thing as online training, and the nearest arson seminar was 300 miles away. No one had thought of developing a standard for fire investigation procedures or professional qualifications, so fire investigators like me often learned skills on the job, with few resources and little guidance. Cooperation between police and fire investigators was rare, as was a conviction for an arson fire. More often than not, even accidental fires were classified as “undetermined cause.”

Much has improved with fire investigation in the United States since then, due in large part to the creation of NFPA 921, Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations, and NFPA 1033, Professional Qualifications for Fire Investigator. Other parts of the world, however, are still catching up.

In the U.S., public and private fire investigators now closely follow scientific methods and are held to rigorous criteria for determining fire origins and causes. Investigators are trained and certified, with NFPA 921 and NFPA 1033 forming the backbone of the curriculum. Fire agencies have authority to investigate the causes of all fires—figuring out what happened is paramount, even when there are no fatalities.

Internationally, the same standards and processes don’t always apply. The fire service often has no role or responsibility to conduct post-fire investigations; instead, police agencies have total jurisdiction. Unless a crime has been committed, law enforcement may not have the interest or resources to initiate an investigation. When an investigation does take place, the methods used are often similar to investigations in the U.S. 20 or more years ago; investigators rely more on intuition than a scientific process.

This matters tremendously because a thorough investigation can uncover important product failures and lapses in building maintenance and upkeep. It can also reveal human behaviors that result in fires, injuries, deaths, and property loss. That knowledge is essential for improving fire safety going forward.

Fortunately, the quality of investigations and the qualifications of fire investigators are improving across the globe. As in the U.S., NFPA 921 and NFPA 1033 are increasingly becoming the de facto standards for fire investigations in many parts of the world. NFPA 921 has been translated into Korean, Chinese, French, Hebrew, and Spanish.

The transition is happening in part because of pressure from fire victims, property owners, insurers, and fire and police chiefs. Fire organizations, such as the International Fire and Rescue Services Association, have also played a big role. Several years ago, the association established a working group to improve fire investigations throughout Europe, which NFPA has participated in since its inception. Material in NFPA 921 and NFPA 1033 has formed the basis for much of the group’s efforts, which have already resulted in a significant impact.

In Prague, Czech Republic, for example, the fire brigade’s fire investigation unit now carries copies of NFPA 921 in the field and refer to it frequently while they organize and pursue an investigation. For them, NFPA 921 is the “standard of care” that must be followed to ensure a thorough and successful fire investigation. As more jurisdictions across the world follow suit, NFPA 921 and NFPA 1033 will play an even bigger role in the effort to reduce the global fire problem.

DONALD BLISS is vice president of Field Operations for NFPA. Top Illustration: Michael Hoeweler