Archive for January, 2012

by: Jason A. Sutula

Fire Investigation Water HeaterAs with all professional roles in today’s workplace, determination is the key to developing the skills necessary to fulfill that role. Becoming a fire investigator is no different, even though there are several paths up the mountain to achieve the final goal. In short, these paths lead through the realms of the Fire Service, Law Enforcement, the Insurance Industry, and Engineering/Consulting.

The Realms of Fire Investigation Employment

Working as a firefighter for your local fire department is a natural path into fire investigation. Depending on the jurisdiction, funding, and need, a small percentage of firefighters can seek out or will be given the opportunity to advance into a fire investigation role. This typically includes both training on the job and via a classroom setting (e.g., at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, MD, www.usfa.fema.gov/nfa). Once an individual has completed the training and other state or local requirements, employment opportunities can be found at either the city or state level. Large metropolitan cities will often have the resources to support a Fire Investigation Bureau and every state will have a Fire Marshal’s Office that employs fire investigators.

A career in law enforcement can also lead into fire investigation. Most states and large municipalities will have a special division tasked with investigating fires of a “suspicious nature.” These divisions can go by various names such as “arson unit” or “arson task force.” The investigators that work in these divisions will sometimes be called “Arson Investigators,” which is a bit of a misnomer in the field of fire investigation and will be discussed more in a separate post.

In addition to local and state law enforcement agencies, fire investigators are also employed by the federal government. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (www.atf.gov) fields special agents who are educated and trained in fire investigation. These agents will routinely investigate suspicious large fire losses that garner national attention as well as fires with large loss of life or injuries.

The insurance industry is another entity with a need for qualified fire investigators. Working at the local, state, or federal level within the fire service or law enforcement is considered the “Public Sector.” Fire investigators hired by the insurance industry are considered part of the “Private Sector.” Insurance companies fund special investigative units in-house that provide fraud protection to the company. Fire investigators employed within the special investigative unit will help adjusters and examiners, who may become suspicious that a fire loss claim is fraudulent.

Also within the private sector are engineering/consultant firms that specialize in fire investigation. These companies can range from one-man operations to organizations employing hundreds of specialized investigators with unique skill sets, education, and training. Often, these operations provide fire expert and fire litigation services to attorneys, insurance adjustors, and other product corporations who may be involved in active litigation or are interested in minimizing the fire risk associated with a process or product.

Choose Your Path

All of the paths to becoming a fire investigator involve some combination of on the job training mixed with formal education beyond high school. The percentage of each component varies based on the whether an individual choses to start in the fire service, law enforcement, or college curriculum.

Becoming a fire investigator through the fire service typically requires the least amount of formal education beyond high school, but will require the greatest amount of on the job training. To follow this path, an individual must first become a firefighter and work in the field for several years before a potential opportunity opens to advance to the level of fire investigator. Once tapped to become a fire investigator, further training courses will be necessary (i.e., at the National Fire Academy) before gaining the required skills necessary to perform the role.

A second path is through law enforcement. This path requires more formal education prior to applying for employment. Most jurisdictions require applicants to be at least 21 years of age and have 1 to 2 years of college level curriculum on their resumes. In some locales and at the federal level (i.e., the ATF), a four-year degree is a minimum requirement for employment. Once employed as a police officer or ATF agent, a similar work experience period as seen in the fire service is required before an individual can be trained to work as a fire investigator.

A third path involves attending a four-year college and specializing in a major that will lead into forensic work as a fire investigator. One example of this is to apply to the Fire and Safety Department of Eastern Kentucky University (www.fireandsafety.eku.edu), which offers a four-year degree in Fire, Arson and Explosion Investigation. A second example is to consider a Fire Protection Engineering Program at either the University of Maryland, College Park (Department of Fire Protection Engineering, www.enfp.umd.edu) for a four-year undergraduate engineering degree and/or two-year Master of Science Degree or Worcester Polytechnic Institute (www.wpi.edu/academics/Depts/Fire) for a two-year Master of Science Degree. Attending college level program such as these has the added benefit of providing a firm knowledge base for meeting the requirements of NFPA 1033 – Standard for Professional Qualifications for Fire Investigator (More on this standard in the next post). After finishing any of these degree programs, an individual will be able to approach engineering consulting firms that do fire forensic work and insurance agencies to apply for an entry level position.

Next post, I will focus on how the above paths build a foundation of knowledge that is necessary for the fire investigator to fully conduct his or her job. The required fundamental knowledge base of our field is presented in NFPA 1033 and will be discussed in more detail along with the current certification process for fire investigators.

 

by: Jason A. Sutula

Fire InvestigationIt seems like you cannot watch the nightly news today without seeing a story about a local fire or maybe a very large fire that gains national recognition. Based on this high level of media exposure, one would think that fires occur very frequently, but this is not the case. Fires and explosions continue to be rare events according to the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFRIS, nfirs.fema.gov) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA, www.nfpa.org). NFIRS tracks the statistical data that is required to be entered into a standardized system by every fire department in the country for every fire event to which they respond. In addition to many other roles promoting Fire Safety, the NFPA utilizes that data to make assessments regarding where, when, how, and why fires occur in the hopes of reducing injuries, deaths, and property losses associated with fire.

Even though fire is rare, the consequences of a fire are unacceptably high. Every time a fire incident results in an injury, death, or severe property loss, the hope is that a lesson can be learned by investigating the aftermath of the fire to prevent that type of loss from happening again in the future. Thus, many fire safety roles have developed over the years in an effort to combat the global fire loss problem. These roles include fire prevention through fire safety education (e.g., Smokey the Bear, Fire Prevention Week, etc.), building design that incorporates fire suppression equipment and fire alarms (i.e., this is included in building construction by Fire Protection Engineers), and fire investigations to determine where and how a fire started, how the fire grew and spread, and what (or who in the case of Arson) was responsible for both the fire initiation and the overall fire loss.

Contrary to what is romanticized in police investigation television shows like CSI, correctly investigating a fire can take a good deal of time and resources. Finding out what actually caused the fire and the true origin location of a fire cannot be completed in one hour. The reality of fire investigation is that it is hard work, and the work has only just begun after a fire is extinguished.

Depending on the nature of the fire and the jurisdiction where the fire occurred, various type of investigators will be on the scene for the investigation. These investigators can include fire investigators from local state law enforcement, fire investigators from the fire service or State Fire Marshal’s Office, federal fire investigation agents, and private investigators (More on these “paths” to becoming a fire investigator in a later post). While most likely from different backgrounds, education, and experience, all fire investigators at a scene will (or should!) follow an identical procedure when conducting their investigation (There will be more specifics on this particular issue in a later post as well). In short, this will include documenting the scene through photographs and video, digging through fire debris for potential evidence, taking samples and evidence into custody, measuring the dimensions of the structure if plans are unavailable for later analysis, and interviewing witnesses. Once as much of the possible data from the fire incident is collected, only then can (and should!) a determination of the fire origin and cause be made.

As mentioned in my previous post, one of the goals of this blog is to provide useful resources related to fire investigation. I would like to invite all readers to investigate the links found in the fire links page of this blog. Any website I mention in my postings will be listed there for easy access. Today’s featured links include the NFPA, NFIRS, and the wikipedia page on Fire Investigation. All of these links contain excellent follow-up material on today’s post.

by: Jason A. Sutula

fire science blog candleHello and welcome to the Fire Science Blog! I have a few goals for what I want this blog to accomplish. Before I get to those goals, I want to share with you a little bit about my background. My name is Jason A. Sutula, and I have been involved in the fields of Fire Science, Fire Protection Engineering, and Fire Investigation for over thirteen years. During that time, I have been very fortunate to have experienced a wide range of the various aspects of all three fields. I have conducted various research projects ranging from smoke detector testing to microgravity combustion. I have performed fire hazard risk assessment to smoke control modeling for fire protection design. I have conducted many site inspections and documented many fire scenes. I have interviewed witnesses and collected evidence. I have been involved in every “fire expert” aspect of the resulting (and inevitable) litigation related to a fire loss, including both criminal and civil cases. I have had the chance to learn, understand, and use some of the most advanced and sophisticated tools available within the realm of Fire Science. And, maybe most importantly, I have a realistic view of what is and what is not possible in these chosen fields, which leads nicely into my goals for the Fire Science Blog.

Blog Goals:

  1. To educate what the fields of Fire Science, Fire Protection, and Fire Investigation are all about.
  2. To discuss what a fire scientist is, what a fire scientist does, and the ways to become a fire scientist.
  3. To talk about what a fire protection engineer is, what a fire protection engineer does, and the various ways to become a fire protection engineer.
  4. To relate what a fire investigator is, what a fire investigator does, and the various ways to become a fire investigator.
  5. To present the “basic elements” of a sound fire investigation.
  6. To provide helpful resources in one location related to all things related to fire science, fire protection, and fire investigation.
  7. To present case examples of various fire and explosion incidents and how available fire and explosion investigative tools were used for those analyses.
  8. To foster critical discussion to help advance the fields.

These goals are ambitious to be sure, but I am committed to presenting as much of this information as possible. I hope that all readers will find this blog interesting and informative, and I would invite you to give your opinions freely on all topics presented.