Are Fire Investigators Part of Fire Prevention?


CarolinaFireJournal - Jesse Soares
Jesse Soares
08/10/2016 -

After suppression operations are conducted and a fire investigator is called to determine the origin and cause of the fire, how is the information that is collected by the investigator used? In most non-incendiary instances a case file is created for the investigation and after the completion of the written report the case is filed and not thought of again.

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When speaking to those who work in fire prevention, with the job responsibilities of fire inspections, fire plans review, and fire education, they seem to see fire investigation as a separate entity that has no bearing on their duties, and those whose duty is primarily only fire investigation do not see the need for their inclusion in fire prevention duties.

I have been part of the fire investigation community for almost four years, working with two agencies and involved with multiple fire departments. In those four years I have seen that fire investigation is not viewed as part of fire prevention, and there is no cooperation between the two, but rather their duties are divided.  I am fortunate that everyone within the Fire Marshal’s Office where I work is active in all parts of fire prevention, and use lessons learned from a fire investigation as part of our fire prevention duties. The question is, what about those offices that do not include investigations as part of fire prevention? What are some of the advantages being missed, and how can coupling fire investigations along with the duties of fire prevention be used to better serve our communities?

Looking for guidance on this issue there is little to no information on how fire investigation is part of fire prevention, or how they should work together. The only information I found says that it is part of fire prevention and one of the multiple duties that is performed. That lack of information or guidance has enforced the separation mentality between fire prevention and fire investigation. In many fire prevention bureaus job duties include fire inspections, fire plans review, fire education and sometimes fire investigation, that are usually performed by one office, such as a Fire Marshal’s Office, or assigned to individual departments or personnel within the fire department. Within the fire service and fire prevention bureaus the importance of the four fire prevention duties is well known, with their mission to provide the three “Es” of fire prevention to the community served, those being:

  • Engineering
  • Education
  • Enforcement

The job duty of fire investigation may be part of the overlying job duties of fire prevention, but how does a fire investigation provide the mission of the three “Es” and how does it fit into the duties of fire prevention?

Fire investigation differs from the other three job duties within fire prevention, being that fire inspections, plans review, and education are all proactive measures within prevention, but fire investigation is a primarily reactive measure, due to all outcomes that may stem from an investigation occur after a fire has occurred. I believe that with a better understanding of how fire investigations can assist the fire service through fire prevention in its ability to providing data to prevent fire through the three “Es” in the fire prevention field and the information collected through investigations can assist with the other fire prevention duties, keeping the communities that are served safer.

In the field of fire prevention, enforcement is considered the job duty of fire inspections, where properties within the jurisdiction are inspected per the requirements of an applicable fire code and those codes are enforced. Fire inspections may enforce the fire code, but fire investigation provides the data for the need for those codes.  There have been multiple fire loss incidents that have led to code changes provided after the reactive measure of a fire investigation. Such incidents include the Iroquois Theatre fire which had a loss of 602 lives, which was due to overcrowding, inward-opening exit doors, locked and blocked exits, and fire protection features that were not completed or were constructed improperly. We know that these deficiencies are gross violations and would require immediate correction during an inspection, but the fire investigation that was conducted after the fire brought these to light and assisted in the development of code requirements. Another example was The Cocoanut Grove Nightclub fire, which had a loss of 492 lives, which was due to the speed of the fire sweeping over flammable decorations that trapped occupants in the theater, which was overcrowded. There are many other examples on how the loss of lives was attributed to the lack of code compliance, or the lack of code requirements. With the data that is collected during a fire investigation these issues are brought to light and codes can be adjusted, created, or provide data that certain areas need to have increased inspection scrutiny, in order to make buildings safer and assist in making the enforcement aspect of fire prevention stronger.

Fire plans review is a fire prevention duty that looks at the conception of buildings before they are built and occupied. Fire investigations, particularly in the private sector, have been using professional engineers, and both private and public sectors have been using computer-based fire models in order to evaluate fire scene scenarios. The fire models are now computer-based and combine the fire investigation scene questions, math, and fire dynamics to provide insight to possible design deficiencies that may have led to the spread of fire in a structure. The fire models used for fire investigation may not be in themselves used for a design aspect, but the results that are collected can be used in the development in a fire safety system, or identify unknown deficiencies in a system. In the scope of fire investigation, the engineering mission does not only rest on the construction aspects, but also in deficiencies in products. A recent product deficiency that led to a product recall was the Craftsman Blower/Vac, which from fire investigations conducted, determined that these products were the cause of fire, where the blower/vac’s motor can catch fire, prompting a company recall for the product. The engineering aspect of fire investigations is one of the most important aspects of the data collected by conducting a proper investigation and sharing that information to provide lasting changes in the engineering of structures and products.

Fire education is the part of fire prevention that touches the most of the public, and every facet of fire prevention uses education as a part of providing fire safety to them.  Fire inspections educate the public through identifying fire code violations and informing the inspected of those violations. Plans review educate architects and engineers of fire code requirements during pre-planning, construction, post-construction and final occupancy inspections. Fire education duties are usually focused to the age groups most prone to fire death and injury, the young and old population.  Fire investigation may not seem like it would be a part of fire education, but the data that is collected allows fire prevention bureaus to focus on items that may be present in the community. When a fire occurs in a neighborhood and a smoke detector is not present, or has expended batteries, conducting a canvas of that neighborhood to see who needs a smoke detector will most likely happen. If an increase of kitchen fires is occurring within a community, a fire safety program on kitchen safety is usually established. Fire investigations may be a reactive form of prevention, but the outcome, or data collected, can be used for proactive measures in fire education development, preventing a fire like one being investigated from occurring again.

It is well known in the fire service that codes and standards are written in blood and it has been shown how fire investigations, as part of fire prevention, uses the data collected in determining an origin and cause are utilized in all the four facets of fire prevention. The mission of fire prevention is to use the three “Es” in order to provide a safer community through engineering, education and enforcement. Fire investigation uses these three mission focuses in order to accomplish that. In many fire communities, fire investigators are seen as outsiders, but by seeing the job that they perform, and the data that is collected during an investigation and how it is used in all aspects of fire prevention, I hope they are seen as a vital part of the fire service in the attempt to keep the communities that we serve safe. 

Jesse Soares serves as an Assistant Fire Marshal at the Mecklenburg County Fire Marshal’s Office. He’s involved in fire investigations, fire plans review, fire inspections, and fire education for the volunteer fire departments and community within Mecklenburg County. He has been with the Mecklenburg County Fire Marshal’s Office for three years and has completed multiple fire investigations and multiple fire investigation training classes, and holds the certification as a Fire Investigation Technician, through the International Association of Arson Investigators. He graduated from the University of North Carolina Charlotte (UNCC), receiving his Bachelor’s Degree in Fire Safety Engineering Technology and is currently pursuing his Master’s Degree in Fire Protection Engineering Administration at the UNCC.
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Issue 33.4 | Spring 2019

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