When asked what I do for a living I pretty much get the same response. “A Fire Expert? How interesting! So you do what fire expert Robert De Niro did in the movie “Backdraft”? My response...Yes and no.
In the movie “Backdraft” De Niro, who played the role of Donald "Shadow" Rimgale, a fire investigator dedicated to his profession. In the movie, "Shadow" is called in to investigate a number of fires that have similar characteristics and quickly discovers that there is serial arsonist on the loose.
“Shadow” a calloused, well seasoned “fire expert” seems to have all of the answers and techniques necessary to determine the origin and cause of each suspicious fire. Although portrayed as one who has all of the answers, times have changed and the days of “Shadow” are now long gone. In today's world, a fire expert is held to a much higher standard and must now prove his or her case "scientifically".
In the movie, "Shadow" explains his philosophy about fire and fire investigation, "It's a living thing. It breathes, it eats and it hates. The only way to beat it is to think like it. To know that this flame will spread this way across the door and up across the ceiling, not because of the physics of flammable liquids, but because it wants to."
Ask any experienced fire expert about fire and fire investigation today and you will quickly learn that there is more to know the science of fire than what is portrayed in the movie. In this day and age, fire investigators are being asked tough questions during deposition and trial with regard to their investigative methodology, which makes the field of fire investigation a little less "intriguing" than in the movie.
The determination of fire origin and cause investigation dates as far back as 1450-1410 BC, as “arson” is first mentioned in Exodus 22:6 (New International Version) which states "If a fire breaks out and spreads into thorn bushes so that it burns shocks (gathered stacks) of grain or standing grain or the whole field, the one who started the fire must make restitution”. In other words, through eyewitness accounts, confessions or possibly a formal investigation using the basic “who, what, where, when, why and how” methodology, those responsible for setting reckless fires were sought out and held accountable for their careless actions. Realizing that back in biblical times, technology was not what it is today and proving a fire case was based on eyewitness accounts and circumstantial evidence.
We have come a long way since then and science has become a key component when conducting a fire investigation. Gone are the days of "gut feelings" and “shoot from the hip” theories regarding fire origin and cause. The investigation of a fire or explosion nowadays most often involves the identification, collection, and analysis of data, or facts which is addressed in National Fire Protection Association's NFPA 921 “Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations”. This process is what is referred to as the “Scientific Method” and has become a "key" component in the outcome of criminal and civil litigation.
Therefore it is essential that fire investigators and attorneys become familiar with the guidelines of NFPA 921 with the understanding that each fire investigation should be conducted using the basic scientific methodology, which includes the recognition of need, defining the problem, collection and analysis of data, development of a hypothesis, testing of the hypothesis and finally, the selection of a final hypothesis.
Has this change come easy for the fire investigation world. No, but for those who have chosen to pursue a career as a "fire expert", change has actually become a friend. As Albert Einstein once said, “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Robert Rowe
Robert Rowe, retired from a 27 year fire service career in 2007 after serving 18 years as Deputy Fire Marshal and Acting Fire Marshal for the City of Downey. During his career, Robert gained extensive knowledge in fire prevention management, fire/building code development, interpretation and development, hazardous materials regulation and enforcement and fire investigation.
In 2006, Robert formed his own fire consulting company, Pyrocop, Inc. who provides fire investigation services, fire forensic consultation, fire expert witness testimony, fire and building code analysis and interpretation, fire code/ordinance development, hazardous materials storage and handling consultation, contract Fire Marshal support and fire life safety plan review services.
Robert is a Certified Fire Investigator, Certified Fire and Explosion Investigator/Instructor and a Licensed Private Investigator
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Fire Investigations and “The Scientific Method - Change is Good!”
By Pyrocop, Inc. Fire Expert Witness
Call Robert Rowe at (562) 425-3943
"Over time, there have been significant changes in the standard of care for conducting a fire investigation. Therefore, it is essential that fire experts and attorneys become familiar with the guidelines of NFPA 921, particularly the investigative process referred to as the "Scientific Method".
While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.