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Burnette, Guy E. NFPA 921: Where Do We Go From Here? National Fire & Arson Report. Vol. 13, No. 2 (June 1995) . p 3-6.

Abstract: Since 1992, when the first edition of the NFPA 921 was released, the document has generated considerable debate. Many fire investigators believe that due to its application in the courtroom, it has generated significant problems. The 1995 edition contains considerable additions and revisions. Yet, it is expected that the debate will continue.

The NFPA 921 does not represent a national standard adopted by the NFPA. Its name and mission suggest that it is simply a "guide" whose purpose is to assist investigations and establish guidelines. The NFPA 921 also recognizes and states that not every situation and scenario could have possibly been included. The NFPA itself has adopted language stating that "the document as a whole is not suitable for adoption into law." Even with such conditions placed upon its use, the NFPA 921 is being used in court during the cross-examination of investigators, with the purpose of casting doubt upon their conclusions.

Critics point toward the scientific tone of the document. While its goal is to promote proper investigation using scientifically validated methods, at the same time it rejects methods which are not grounded in science. This point of view restricts many traditional methods of investigation, even condemning some of them as unreliable. The article goes on to highlight numerous examples of chapters in the NFPA 921 which have been turned against investigators on the stand.

In addition, the NFPA 921 is criticized for raising considerable doubt regarding investigative findings, by repeatedly noting that additional explanations and factors may exist. This wording, brought to light in the courtroom, might convince any juror that nothing can be conclusively proven and that reasonable doubt is inherent.

Proper use of the NFPA 921 could be highly beneficial. The need for greater scientific awareness in investigations and for proper investigative technique cannot be dismissed. But improper use represents a threat to every fire investigation, and defeats the very purpose of the guidelines.

For more information, contact:
The National Fire and Arson Report is out of print. To request a printed copy, call 1-800-694-2313.

 
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