In the mid-1970s, salty old fire investigators would work their way through the smoky ruins of buildings, armed only with knowledge gleaned from mentors or picked up along the way from others charged with figuring out fire puzzles.
Back then there was no such thing as investigation textbooks or online training, and arson seminars were few and far between. There weren’t any standards for fire-investigation procedures or information related to the professional qualifications that one must have to undertake arson investigations. And cooperation between the police and fire investigators was as rare as getting a conviction for an arson fire. More often than not, accidental fires were classified as ‘undetermined cause’ incidents or mislabelled as arson because those that investigated fires lacked scientific knowledge. It’s safe to say that a lot was determined by a hunchor gut instinct.
Fast forward to today and, by and large, fire departments throughout the United States and Canada believe that investigating fires to determine causes and to institute corrective measures is an essential part of keeping people and property safe. In North America, fire investigation is a vital component of fire-prevention strategies. Most fire agencies have the authority to investigate fire causes and are utilizing science over intuition to identify what and who started fires. This is great news because, simply put, if we don’t know what happened, we can’t learn from our mistakes and may very well be doomed to repeat them.
Since NFPA 921, Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations was released in 1992, and NFPA 1033, Professional Qualifications for Fire Investigator was adopted in 1987, fire officials and private investigators in the US and Canada have primarily used these two documents as guidance.
NFPA 921 sets the bar for scientific-based investigation and analysis of fire and explosion incidents, and is regarded as the foremost guide for rendering accurate opinions as to incident origin, cause, responsibility and prevention. The standard is referenced in the field, in training and in court, and is widely used by public and private fire investigators who are charged with conducting investigations for insurance companies or litigation purposes.
NFPA 1033 facilitates safe, accurate investigations by specifying the job performance requirements (JPRs) needed to perform the role of fire investigator in both the fire service and the business world.
When used together, NFPA 921 and NFPA 1033 essentially form the backbone of fire investigation curriculums and personnel.
Getting up to speed globally
In other parts of the world, however, jurisdictions are still playing catch-up on investigating fire causes. I don’t say this to disparage global authorities; the emphasis on investigations in North America is simply a by-product of a culture that is more inclined to champion and follow codes and standards. Those same standards and processes are not as utilized internationally.
More often than not in other countries, the fire service is not responsible for conducting post-fire investigations. Instead, those tasks are undertaken by police agencies and given their usual purview, unless a crime has been committed, law enforcement officers may not have the interest or resources to initiate an investigation. When officials do investigate root problems they often use methods similar to the investigative work that was done in the US 20 years ago. In other words, investigators may rely heavily on intuition rather than on a scientific process.
For many years, when I heard about major fires outside the US, I wondered if investigators were using NFPA 921 and 1033 to help find the origin and cause of the fire. In some cases, I wondered, did they even know about NFPA 921 and 1033? Using an outdated approach, an investigator may very well miss important product failures, lapses in building maintenance, incendiary causes and upkeep issues. Conversely, if the scientific method or systematic approach is used, an investigator will gain key insights and learn about the human behaviours that result in fires, injuries, deaths and property loss.
Signs of stepping it up
These days, there are more reasons to be optimistic about fire investigation around the world. Jurisdictions are transitioning to modern-day techniques, in part because fire victims, property owners, insurers, and fire and police chiefs have demanded more. Fire organizations, such as the International Fire and Rescue Services Association (CTIF), are also playing a pivotal role in driving change. The CTIF working group consists of fire-protection agencies from throughout Europe and the Middle East. I was lucky enough to represent NFPA at CTIF meetings in recent years, and fortunate to be able to discuss ideas, protocols, best practices, and training insights related to fire investigations with global authorities as part of this group. Thanks to the efforts of the CTIF working group, the guidance within NFPA 921 and NFPA 1033 has been used to precipitate some of the change we are seeing in countries.
My CTIF interactions showed me that understanding the JPRs outlined in NFPA 1033 is very important to global fire leaders. Many of the countries represented indicated that fire investigators did not have proper benchmarks, and that their training consisted of on-the-job-training and shadowing an experienced investigator in the field. So, NFPA hosted four members of the Czech Republic General Directorate of Fire & Rescue Service at our headquarters as part of a two-week fact-finding tour in the US that entailed Prague officers meeting with various fire departments and fire-protection agencies in an effort to gather additional information on fire investigations. One particular meeting took place with members of the Fire Investigations Unit (FIU) of the Boston Fire Department. The experienced Boston team discussed their experiences, case studies they have developed, and conducted a demonstration with their accelerant detection canine.
The following year, I had the chance to visit Prague Fire officials in their beautiful city. They showed me their fire-investigation equipment and their local technique – testimony of the tremendous progress that they have made with their fire-investigation protocol in recent years. Today, it is not uncommon to see General Directorate of Fire & Rescue Service investigators in Prague carrying copies of NFPA 921 in their apparatus and response vehicles so that they can be referred to while in the field. For them, NFPA 921 is the ‘standard of care’ that must be followed to ensure a thorough and successful fire investigation.
NFPA standards remain a constant
This is just one example of a country taking positive steps to catch up on fire-investigation strategies. I’m hopeful that there are many more in this day and age that are making up for lost time.
As fire departments around the globe get more sophisticated (i.e. CTIF meeting participants learning how virtual reality can help hone fire-investigation skills in the Netherlands last year), we will learn more about fire causes and mitigation – and help to reduce the global fire problem. Whether it is a small apartment fire in Prague, a major historic building fire in South America, or a building under construction in Kansas City, NFPA 921 and NFPA 1033 will continue to be the go-to resources for fire service organizations and private investigators looking to effectively identify the origins of fire.