A day in the life of a fire investigator.

Archived image of interior of fire damaged vehicle

In today’s post, I have decided to give you a look into a day in the life of a fire investigator. The purpose is to either answer any questions that you may have or to ignite a passion for such a career, pun intended!.

But first, fire investigation refers to an origin and cause investigation, which is the analysis of fire-related incidents. The practice is like that of investigating a crime scene in that the scene must be preserved and evidence collected and analysed, but with numerous additional difficulties and dangers.

At Strange Strange & Gardner, I am often called upon to determine the origin and cause of fires in houses, shops, and industrial buildings as well as in appliances, machines, and vehicles. We provide vital assistance to the legal and insurance sectors to determine origin, cause and to find out whether a fire was accidental, natural cause, undetermined or deliberately set.

Archived image of smouldering fire of single bed and mattress

A typical work week involves about 40 hours; however, depending on the caseload, this time can increase if a report needs to be issued. Again, depending on the importance or severity of the case, an investigation can last any time from 3 hours up to several weeks.

I may be deployed to undertake anything between two to four investigations a week. Upon request to attend a scene, I aim to get there as early as possible. The investigation process begins the evening before any scene attendance. After preparing my folder and documents needed, all tools and personal protective equipment are stored in the car boot and ready to go.

Any battery charging devices, e.g. portable lighting, flashlights, battery-powered spotlights and camera batteries are charged the evening prior, as there is nothing worse than arriving on scene and an item is flat.

Archived image of damaged capacitor fire (dish washer)

With any fire investigation, natural lighting is an essential factor to consider. For this, I aim to be at any scene at 0900 hours at the latest. This gives me enough time to attend the scene and have a pre-organised meeting with either the insured, tenant or insurance adjuster attending. At an early stage in the fire investigation, witness accounts of those who witnessed the fire will be documented. Such information collection is a massive part of the fire investigators job.

The examination of fire scenes is by no means a glamorous affair, as you can find yourself in dangerous situations. As no two fire scenes are alike, to consider the health of not only myself but to those attending the scene with me, it becomes natural to undertake a risk assessment before entering a fire damaged property or area. Consideration is made to structural integrity, including damage to ceilings, walls, and flooring. Any competent investigator will have the tools, and PPE to protect from whatever ailments they may come across.

Archived image of tumble dryer fire

The fire investigation is carried out using the scientific method, the gathering of all known information, documentation and scene evidence that can help us come up with a hypothesis – a theory on how the fire started. Before anything is touched, the scene needs to be thoroughly photographed, making scene notes, sketches and diagrams of the scene as found on my arrival.

All documentation gathered will allow for the development of hypothesis or hypotheses that may help gather theories about the potential origin or cause. Using the scientific method, each theory will then be tested against information we have collected, until, we are left with only one likely cause. Before entering the fire-damaged property, a full 360 degree search of the external structure is first undertaken, making a note of any access or egress points, the structural integrity and fire damage to other structures.

Archived image of examination of double socket (witness marks)

Any scene examination starts from the area of least damage to most, observing the escalating level of fire damage as we enter the property. The excavation process can be timely and very messy, but I like to think of the whole process as a puzzle, the evidence is there to be found, we need to find it.

With any fire investigation and evidence retrieval, it is essential always to consider the potential for spoliation, which refers to the loss, destruction or alteration of an object which is evidence (or potential evidence) in a legal proceeding. When collecting evidence, it is important to adhere to a strict scientific protocol when attempting to identify and accurately document, manage, and preserve evidence for laboratory analyses, further investigations, and Court proceedings.

Once likely regions have been located, fire test samples are collected from the suspected point of ignition. In addition to this, a control sample is obtained, which consists of the same material as that of the fire sample but collected from an area uncontaminated by the suspected fuel, and a negative control sample.

Once the scene examination is completed and evidence gathered, it is essential to preserve the scene and secure it from both the elements and unwanted occupants. This may be carried out by boarding up the property myself or contacting the owner to attend – thus carrying on with the chain of custody.

As the scene examination comes to an end, the investigation continues in the office where all documentation gathered, and information provided is sorted. Photographs are backed up on the computer, and a site report written to allow our instructing party to prepare for my final report. Over the next few weeks, the report can be written, several hypotheses tested, and the report issued.

Image of fire investigation books at Strange Strange & Gardner

To summaries, the fire investigator must explore, determine, and document the origin and cause of the fire, establish what human actions were responsible for it, and when advised, to give expert opinion in court. It is essential to know that this job can be stressful, high pressure and some incidents may be stressful. However, no two days are the same, and the career is fulfilling.

Lastly, by undertaken our duty to investigate fires, our research and reports on cause and origin highlight trends in fire cause. Those with authority use our reports to modify nationally recognised codes with recommendations to improve fire safety.

If you are interested in reading more about the field of fire investigation, check out the free download of Niamh Nic Daeid’s book titled Fire Investigation.

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