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Modern Fire Investigation Art or Science?

By David M. Smith, C.F.I.
Speaking of Fire, Volume 3 – Number 1, (Spring, 1996)

Confusion continues to abound regarding the state of fire investigation and the techniques or methodology that fire investigators use in modern fire investigation. Many could care less about the proper terminology – whether it is called art or science – or about the reasons creating a controversy. They only want to know which school of thought is correct and which course of study is accurate.

Art in the context of a profession is defined as a craft, skill, technique, or trade; science is defined as knowledge of facts, phenomena, laws, and proximate causes that are gained and verified by exact observation, organized experiment and ordered thinking. Recent court decisions have specifically indicated that an expert opinion must be predicated on a valid scientific theory and be validated based on the current body of knowledge. Even though many of us, including myself, have taught and testified that origin and cause investigation was an art, we must now realize and accept it to be a science, albeit not exact.

As I indicated in the article ‘Modern Origin and Cause Investigation’ in the Spring 1995 issue of Speaking of Fire, our ‘tried and true indicators’ are simply not accurate. We continue to have investigators unwilling to accept that fact. Many continue to investigate, teach and testify to opinions based on invalid indicators or ‘rules of thumb.’ It is ironic that some of these same individuals who call modern fire investigation ‘junk science’ fail to understand that the opposite is true. If an indicator’s significance cannot be accurately repeated or validated, its meaning is of no scientific value and will, in most courts, not be admitted. Many of these same individuals hold on to the ancient theories and provide entertaining lectures on those theories because they have failed to continue their education in a technical area that is changing on a daily basis. Some of us have heard investigators state that ‘Fires burn the same today as they did for the caveman.’ How many really believe that in a world in which new materials (fuels) are being constantly produced that it is not necessary to evaluate that fuel’s propensity for ignition, spread, and heat release? It is only after that evaluation that one may accurately provide an opinion regarding ‘abnormal’ intensity or spread characteristics. How many believe the caveman wore polyester or had furniture of polyurethane animal skins?

New fire investigators constantly ask who they should believe and who is right. This honest and valid question is often asked after the new investigator attended a seminar in which an ‘experienced investigator’ taught that fire investigation is an art and that origin and cause are based on a checklist of indicators whose ‘meaning’ is not open for debate. Most often, these same investigators have not attended a seminar or class themselves for many years and are relying on information taught and previously believed to be true by most of us (myself included) many years ago.

Information provided the student is no different than data provided a computer – GARBAGE IN, GARBAGE OUT. It is important to realize and accept that the perpetuation of unsubstantiated information – that is, spring annealing, crazed glass, spalling, melted copper, irregular floor patterns, etc. – does not provide positive proof of anything. This could be compared to the ancient explorers who believed the world was flat.

These same investigators are condemning books, guides, curriculum and manuals recently published as untrue and the downfall of fire investigation. Those who espouse this theory are correct: Fire investigation as they know it will vanish, and fire investigation as a science will remain. Each previously recognized authoritative text has been or is in the process of being rewritten and brought into the modern fire investigation world. These include IFSTA’s Fire Cause Determination manual, the National Fire Academy’s Fire Investigation Course, John D. DeHaan’s Kirk’s Fire Investigation, and NFPA’s 921, A Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigation.

Fire investigation, like any science, requires continual monitoring. Each of us involved must accept change and new information. We must not feel threatened by this new technology but instead work even harder to improve our knowledge base in an attempt to understand and contribute to the ‘new science’ of fire origin and cause investigation.

David M. Smith is the President of the Associated Fire Consultants, Tucson, Arizona, and is a certified fire investigator with twenty-three years of experience in both the public and private sectors. He is a member of the IFSTA Fire Cause Determination committee. David is a current member of the NFPA Technical Committee on Fire Investigations and is a past president of the International Association of Arson Investigators.