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After the Fact

October 17, 2016


When undertaking a fire investigation, it is beneficial for a forensic expert to be on scene first-hand to clearly document the conditions at the scene and collect any and all existing information. Sometimes, however, the need for an expert is not realized until sometime after the scene has been made available and potentially compromised.

In this circumstance, a forensic expert can still piece together much of the circumstances surrounding the loss, depending on the amount and quality of documentation preserved from the scene by others. The more (precise) information an expert can review, the better he or she can assess the circumstances to arrive at an accurate origin and cause of the fire.

Fire experts often rely on the following scene information when investigating a fire for which they were unable to attend:

Photographs

Images and video are typically the most accurate way to portray a scene. A camera’s eye is all-inclusive and unbiased and does not leave out important details or be subject to interpretation.

Photographs can be sourced from property owners, witnesses, emergency response personnel, insurance adjusters or other investigators.

Sketches

These include physical sketches of the scene or of specific items, mechanical drawings, schematics, process drawings, etc., that can be used to capture the essentials of a scene or an object. Arrows, lines, and symbols can be useful to convey information such as wind direction, the travel direction of vehicles or individuals, or notable items.

Statements

Statements not only give an account of a fire and its development, but can also convey the history of a dwelling, piece of equipment, or a specific item. The circumstances leading up to an incident are often learned through witness statements.

Fire/Police Incident reports

Reports prepared by first responders can specify important information such as the time of the fire, conditions when first responders arrived, recounts from witnesses, fire progression, and means of extinguishment.

Other investigative reports

Reports prepared by other investigators often contain photographs, witness statements, historical information, or other relevant details that can be used to learn more about the circumstances surrounding the incident.

Product literature

Review of product manuals and other information published by the manufacturer may help in establishing whether a particular product had been operating properly prior to the loss, or if it had been used or maintained appropriately.

Recall searches

A recall search can determine whether a product involved in a fire may have had a known defect or flaw that could have caused, or contributed to, the fire, even if it had been used in its intended manner.

Weather information

Strong winds, high temperatures, wet conditions or even freeze/thaw cycles that create ground movement can cause fires or influence its development.

Building/Equipment Maintenance Logs and Records

Historical information on a building, system, or particular item can convey whether it was properly maintained and if there had been any problems or issues leading up to an incident.

Building and Systems Repair/Renovation/Modification Records (including, but not limited to, recent work orders, invoices, and contracts)

Review of such records can establish if underlying problems/issues were present with equipment prior to the fire. Alternatively, a fire can sometimes ignite as a result of recent work performed on a piece of equipment.

Building and Systems Electronic Data or Monitoring Records (such as fire and burglar alarms)

Security systems can establish whether or not a building or vehicle was intact and secure prior to the fire. The condition of doors, windows, or other openings can be verified. Video footage of the fire’s ignition or fire spread can assist an investigator greatly in determining the origin and cause of a fire.

 Even if a fire investigator is unable to visit the incident scene, review of at least some of the resources listed above may enable him or her to determine the origin and cause of the loss.


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