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How CPSC Can Help Speed Your Fire Investigation

By Jim Murphy

As you sift through the rubble of a residential fire, searching for clues to its cause and point of origin, consider this: You may find some valuable assistance at the Web site of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)

CPSC, which began operating in 1973, is responsible for 15,000 types of consumer products, explains Dennis Blasius, CPSC's Special Assistant to the Deputy Director of the Office of Compliance and Field Operations.

CPSC's mission is to protect against unreasonable risk of serious injury or death from consumer products used in the home, school or for recreation.

"Practically everything in your house we have jurisdiction over," he says, except, food, drugs, cosmetics and firearms.

How the CPSC can help you

To perform its function, CPSC has developed an extensive database of recalled items. This database also makes it easy for you to search for information in a variety of ways.

You can search:

  • By month and year (back to 1973)
  • By product type
  • By company
  • By product category
  • By press release to the public

Another beneficial feature is a handy CPSC contact list. Just go to the home page, click on "Press Room," then on "Issue Areas and CPSC Contacts." You'll find names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses for five contacts covering 105 major product categories, plus a contact for interview requests in Spanish.

Note: You can also sign up to receive CPSC press releases, recall notices and more. Just go to:

Laptop battery recall affects millions

In two very high-profile cases recently, CPSC recalled defective lithium-ion laptop batteries manufactured by Sony and sold by Dell and Apple. Less publicly, CPSC has spent years quietly helping develop safety standards for mattresses. In February of 2006, the CPSC announced its new flammability standards.

"Probably 50% or more of recalls are related to fire safety issues," Dennis says. In fact, he emphasizes, more fire deaths are attributed to mattresses and upholstered furniture than to any other cause almost 1,000 deaths a year.

When the new federal standard for mattresses goes into effect on July 1, 2007, it is expected to save some 270 lives a year , especially young children, who are often the victims of mattress fires. The new standard requires new mattresses to limit the spread and intensity of a mattress fire, allowing residents more escape time.

How you can help CPSC

  • File an Incident Report on its Web site. Use the special form designed just for fire, police and insurance investigators. Just go to: Or, if you prefer, use the toll-free hotline: 1-800-638-8095.
  • Provide a model number for the consumer product in question, along with the brand name or manufacturer and any other information you have.
  • Protect the evidence. In some cases, CPSC may want to look at it.

Dennis asks that you report all fire-related cases to CPSC. "It could be that the fire department's call could help provide the missing link, alert us to an issue or push us over the edge."

CPSC is a data-driven agency. "Often some of the best reports are from fire investigators at some level," he says. "We get our data from many different systems," and this allows CPDC to build up its database.

If you don't contact CPSC, "obviously, the device will continue to put people at risk." To reach Dennis directly, e-mail him:

CPSC widely distributes Incident Reports, so many different departments stay informed about potential problems. Getting information to CPSC helps make sure no one else is affected by that product.

CSPC and ATF serve complementary roles

CPSC and ATF work together, Dennis says, and occasionally even put on presentations to the same arson task forces.

Generally, ATF is more interested in fires that are set, while CSPC looks at potential defects that may cause fires. When ATF believes a fire has started in a kitchen appliance, the bureau notifies CPSC.

"In some cases, Dennis says, "we work on projects jointly" usually when it involves fireworks and illegal explosives.

He recalls working with ATF after a Milwaukee fire resulted in five fatalities. When CPSC ruled out a dryer as the cause of the fire, ATF was able to continue its investigation with a narrower focus.

"Between our two labs," he says, "we usually can be pretty successful."

CPSC Statistics

  • Years In Operation: 33 years
  • Products It Covers: 15,000
  • Number of Field Investigators: 85 (in 48 locations)

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