Fire Investigators: Be prepared for your expert testimony


CarolinaFireJournal - Doug Ross
Doug Ross
04/23/2012 -

No, the title to this article isn’t a Boy Scout slogan but a serious message to all fire investigators. Long after we leave the scene of a burned-out structure and long after the reports are completed, we anticipate the probability of court-related appearances ranging from depositions and preliminary hearings to a full-blown trial. We realize that any testimony we offer, as investigators, in a civil or criminal court is done so under the authority of the recognized expert witness guidelines.

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First, let’s establish, in a nutshell, what those guidelines are. An expert witness is a witness, who by virtue of education, training, skill, or experience, is believed to have expertise and specialized knowledge in a particular subject beyond that of the average person, sufficient that others may officially and legally rely upon the witness’s specialized (scientific, technical or other) opinion about an evidence or fact issue within the scope of his expertise, referred to as the expert opinion, as an assistance to the fact-finder. That’s a mouthful but the message is important.

Expert testimony focuses on technical issues that are normally outside of the knowledge and understanding of jury members in an attempt to make the testimony easier to understand. Those of us who practice fire investigation regularly take for granted that the novice understand our “lingo” which isn’t the case. The fire expert witness is allowed to “school” the jury with opinions and hypothetical examples normally not allowed by lay witnesses.

By the way, we’re not born expert witnesses. The sitting judge of the legal proceeding is the “gatekeeper” who determines if our “education, training, skill, and experience” meets the qualifications. In case you are wondering, the fire/arson investigator must qualify as an expert witness each time he or she testifies.

As an “expert,” we must keep abreast of the continually changing world of fire investigation. Remember, the key elements that allow one to qualify as an “expert” is knowledge and training and education. We must remain on top of our game in order to be the very best we can. If we fail to answer current questions with correct current answers during the qualification process we’re risking not being qualified as an expert witness.

With so many study resources available for our review, one may ask which the better one is. Maybe it’s not which the better one is, but which has the better advantage for the user. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) publishes a guide titled “Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations.” This guide has been around since 1992 and is updated and revised on a three-year cycle allowing for inclusion of new information.

The document advises that not every recommendation in the guide will apply to any particular investigation; it recommends that if a particular fire investigator does not apply certain sections to an investigation he or she must be prepared to justify the exclusion.

The NFPA 921 is a quality document that should be in every investigator’s collection. Another reason why it is so important is the fact that it is the “go-to” document for defense attorneys as they prepare for trial making it a necessary read. Investigators not familiar with “921” have been tripped up during testimony by opposing counsel asking questions that are unfamiliar. This is a trial ruse to make you look unknowledgeable in front of the jury. Too many “I don’t know” responses and the jury’s confidence in your testimony fade. If the jury gives up on you the trial isn’t going to be successful for your side.

In conclusion, keep in mind there are many other quality documents focused on the investigation of fire and arson related crimes. It’s just important to “be prepared,” especially when you arrive in the court room.

Doug Ross is a Certified Fire Investigator (IAAI) with over 27 years of fire and arson investigative experience. After 31 years as a law enforcement officer in South Carolina he established Firefuzz Enterprises and the Southeastern Fire and Arson Training Institute. He is also a licensed private investigator in SC focusing on fire-related concerns. Visit his web site at www.firefuzzinvestigations.com.
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