New resources for fire and arson investigators

CarolinaFireJournal - Doug Ross
Doug Ross
10/14/2011 -

I’m glad to be back in the Carolina Fire-Rescue-EMS Journal. After being away for several issues, I have some interesting ideas to pass along for fire and arson investigators in the Carolinas.


First of all, the newest edition of the National Fire Protection Association’ 921: “Guide to Fire and Explosive Investigation” is out. You may remember in an earlier article I mentioned the importance of being familiar with NFPA 921 for several different reasons. Primarily, the guide serves as a very adequate “how-to” manual for investigators as they process fire scenes. From tips on fire behavior to “Determining the Origin Cause, Evidence Collection, Legal Issues and Documenting the Fire Scene,” NFPA 921 provides investigators with somewhat of a “standardized” guide that puts investigators around the globe on “the same page” when investigating and discussing fire and arson investigation.

Another reason to be familiar with NFPA 921 is because the document seems to be the choice for defense attorneys in their preparation for trial. That alone is reason enough to be prepared!

Another publication is available that also serves as a very capable resource for fire and arson investigators. I encourage you to check out “Fire Investigator: Principles and Practices to NFPA 921 and 1033,” third edition published through Jones and Bartlett Learning. It is a very credible publication endorsed by the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the International Association of Arson Investigators, and the National Fire Protection Association.

Fire Investigator: Principles and Practice to NFPA 921 and NFPA 1033 updates the resource previously known as “A User’s Manual for NFPA 921,” 2004 Edition.

 This publication goes a step further than NFPA 921 by highlighting case-based learning through special sections such as “You Are the Investigator,” “Voices of Experience” and “Fire Investigator in Action” scenarios. Interactive sources are included on the Jones and Bartlett homepage at The publication is supported with a student workbook and exam preparation opportunities.

Why all the excitement about this publication? I have always been an advocate of continuing education for fire and arson investigators for several reasons. First of all, the field of fire investigation evolves yearly and it’s critical that investigators stay abreast of these changes. Without current publications like this, investigators are limited in their opportunities for updated and current continuing education. Being the best you can be depends on having the most recent tools to work with. Without current, updated training, the conviction rate for arsonists will always remain in the single digits.

A second reason to stay current on fire and arson investigation issues concerns our testimony as an expert witness in criminal and civil proceedings. Being one of the very few investigative specialties required to qualify as an “expert,” fire and arson investigators are only allowed to testify after certain criteria are met with the cumulative qualifications being assessed by the sitting judge. It is the judge who has the task of “gatekeeping” or assuring that scientific expert testimony truly proceeds from “scientific knowledge.” This takes the burden of believability off of the jury members who may have difficulty understanding the technical aspects of the fire and/or arson investigation. Federal Rule of Evidence 702 reads: “If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise.”

Take note the necessary elements for qualification as an expert rely on knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education. Knowledge, training and education opportunities are frequently offered but it seems that the seriously dedicated fire and arson investigators are the ones who care enough to assure their training is updated and current. Just because you attended an arson investigation class 10 or 15 years ago doesn’t come close to the element of “training and education” required under Rule 702. Many investigators processing fire scenes today are likely not candidates for “expert testimony.” Once this is realized at court stage, it is too late to correct. The particular case is suddenly without an “expert” witness.

Do you have to go to workshops or conferences to obtain this? Not necessarily. Self-study is an effective means of staying current on the changes that occur regularly in our trade. Other resources such as the training segments offered through are available.

In closing, remember that “expert testimony” is “testimony about a scientific, technical, or professional issue given by a person qualified to testify because of familiarity with the subject or special training in the field.”

Experts are qualified based on a number of factors, including but not limited to, the number of years they have practiced in their respective field, work experience related to the case, published works, certifications, licensing, training, education, awards, and peer recognition. Are you “expert witness” material? I hope so. If you need to update your training, please seek out opportunities that are available to you and take advantage of these. Our goal is to be the best we can be. With a small investment, we can accomplish this.

Congratulations are in order for Todd Shoebridge, a captain with the Hickory Fire Department. He has been named North Carolina Fire Instructor of the Year 2010-2011.He was honored by the N.C. Society of Fire Service Instructors. Congratulations, Todd.

Doug Ross is a retired law enforcement officer with 31 years experience, 27 of those dedicated to the investigation of arson. He has served as an instructor in the Fire Science Associate Degree program at Greenville (SC) Technical College and currently offers up to date training on fire and arson related topics for fire and police departments and those in the insurance industry. He leads an independent association of fire and arson investigators in South Carolina called The Carolina Fire Investigators Association. CFIA has served as a networking and training outlet for police, fire and insurance investigators since 1981. He can be reached by visiting his website or by email at [email protected].
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