What is Fire Investigation and What Do Fire Investigators Do?

Posted: January 17, 2012 in Fire Investigation, Fire Protection, Fire Science
Tags: , , , ,

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.


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