The investigation of fires can be extremely complex. Fire investigators need to ensure that they have conducted their investigation using a systematic and rigorous methodology so that their findings can withstand any challenges. It was identified during a nine-year research project that there was a fundamental lack of a systematic methodology for fire investigators to investigate the cause of fires and a need for one to be developed.
To address this need, a series of 23 Fire Investigation Road Maps (FIRMs) have been designed, developed and tested at real fire scenes and also during cold case fire investigation reviews to assist a competent fire investigator to conduct a thorough, rigorous and systematic investigation to determine the cause of a fire. It is the cause of the fire that will determine whether the fire was started accidentally or deliberately.
Utilising the FIRMs during a fire investigation will benefit not only the fire investigator but subsequent decision makers by enabling existing data to be gathered, documented, analysed and made available for other interested parties, such as Coroners, civil and criminal prosecutors, insurers and manufacturers or used to identify any fire safety issues which need addressing. The accurate identification of the cause of a fire, with supporting forensic evidence, will assist the courts in making decisions as to whether the fire was accidental, deliberate or the result of a design or system failure. In the circumstances of deliberate fires, the FIRMs will support any subsequent prosecutions and help increase the low arson prosecution rates that currently exist in many countries.
Just as important is the rigorous documentation of the fire investigator’s methodology whilst conducting the investigation into the cause of the fire.
A logical comprehensive framework for the investigation of the causation of fires does not exist. As De Haan (2007) stated:
‘Because of the difficulty and complexity of a complete and accurate fire investigation, and the potential of mental preoccupations, there is a special need for every investigator to develop a comprehensive analytical approach to the task.’
The problem is that human nature, as well as competencies, dictate the success or failure of an investigation, any investigation. The difficulty with investigations is that human nature can often lead the investigator to allow the facts to fit their hypothesis or apply expectation or confirmation biases.
In August 2009, a report was published for the Texas Forensic Science Commission (Beyler, 2009), which analysed the fire investigation methodology used in two criminal arson cases where one convicted arsonist was subsequently released and the other executed.
The report clearly shows a need for the use of FIRMs, highlighting the irregularities between the methodologies applied to each investigation, the lack of consistency and reiterating that a logical comprehensive framework for the investigation of fires still does not exist. The author’s conclusions stated:
‘Their methodologies did not comport with the scientific method or the process of elimination.’
FIRMs and the supported guidance is a practical and easy to use electronic application (App) that can be used at fire scenes to guide competent fire investigators through the complex process of a thorough investigation; aircraft pilots already do this with their flight checklists before they take off. In the background of the App, their methodology will be accurately recorded in the form of a decision log and transposed into a PDF document that can be included as an appendix to a report.
If the investigator is already using on-scene Apps with their electronic tablets, such as ‘Note Taker HD’, ‘IAAI FI Evidence’ and ‘MagicPlan CSI’ as examples, the FIRMs App will be able to be toggled between any other App that is being used to document the scene and remain running in the background.
The user must be a competent fire investigator or, if they are in training and development to become a competent fire investigator, someone who is competent must monitor them.
The FIRMs App must be used before the fire investigator leaves the scene; remember, what’s left at the scene may be lost at the scene!
The user must go through every FIRM until they reach an outcome box, which will either state ‘Possibly Responsible for the Fire’ or ‘Unlikely to be Responsible for the Fire’. This will demonstrate that all of the data available at the scene has been considered and documented. If they have gone down a route they wish to retract, they will be able to, however these decisions will also be recorded and they may need to explain why they made this reverse decision.
Once all of the FIRMs have been completed, there may be one or more outcome boxes stating that a particular cause was ‘Possibly Responsible for the Fire’. These hypotheses will then need to be rigorously tested to either determine which one is the most probable or can be eliminated. Those determined as ‘Unlikely to be Responsible for the Fire’ are as important as those ‘Possibly Responsible for the Fire’ and all the associated documentation should be retained in accordance with best practice.
All of the decisions made will be auditable and cannot be erased.
There will be a starting decision box that will open up a page consisting of a decision box with the relevant text in it and then a ‘YES’ or ‘NO’ answer beneath it. The user will select each box according to the scene and available data.
The user will not be able to skip any steps; if data is required but not available at the time to allow the user to proceed, there will be an option to ‘pause’ that particular FIRM until such time as the data becomes available. As detailed above, if the route needs to be retracted or reversed due to new information, then the user will be able to do so until they reach the decision box that will take them down an alternative route.
All the user’s actions will be recorded; including the time and date the action was taken and will auto-save during use and on shutting down the web based App.
The final PDF document will not be formulated until all the FIRMs have been completed.
A web App has been developed using standard HTML5, CSS3, PHP Yii Framework and a MySQL database being served from a secure web server in a secure UK data centre. Since this is not an image driven or data heavy application that requires large amounts of bandwidth, this web App will be comparable to the speed of a native app.
Another benefit of a web app over a mobile app is that the data will be in real time when the user is connected to the Internet, whenever or wherever you access the system from. The data will be stored on a secure web server in a data centre with all traffic to and from the server being encrypted with 256bit encryption SSL connection.
All data stored will be accessible by the user only from any device at anytime. The case ID and the user password would also use an encryption method to have another layer of data protection.
There is no need to store any data offline on the user's local devices, which avoids any issues with synchronisation across devices. Only one set of data will be accessed from one centrally secured server.
Another benefit is that there is no need to install any special software on any device and it can be used on any device at anytime, which is connected to the Internet.