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Kick Some Ash

Fire investigation in Great Britain

This article first appeared in the combined November 2000 issue of Fire Engineers and Fire Prevention magazines.
2000 Institution of Fire Engineers
The Fire Protection Association

The police and fire inspectorates are to investigate the adequacy of inter-agency arrangements to combat arson and identify best practice and best value in a joint thematic review. Mick Gardiner and Jim Munday comment on the current state of fire investigation and training.

IN ITS 1988 report, the Working Group on the Prevention of Arson found that liaison arrangements between agencies were generally good but that 'greater co-operation and co-ordination' could improve the total effectiveness of action. The Group recommended that consideration should be given to 'levelling up' the standards of liaison between the police, fire and forensic services.

Will those carrying out the current thematic reviews conclude that over the past decade standards generally have improved or will they discover that in some regions there has been little real progress? Those who come into regular contact with scene investigators from each of the vanguard agencies know both to be true.

Making an effort

Without doubt, the 1999 Home Office scoping study and Government announcements have re-vitalised and re-focused efforts. Many brigades have already reviewed their fire investigation policies and improved working practices. Most appear to be participating in some form of inter-agency activity and some have co-signed memorandums of understanding with the local police service.

But it is not entirely good news. Few brigades appear to have taken up the 1988 recommendation to appoint at least one full-time fire investigation officer. Nor has the report recommendation that the investigation and prosecution of arson be given a high priority in the allocation of police resources produced an adequate response. Resources have not matched the rise in deliberate fires.

As the Arson Control Forum considers the arguments concerning the fire service having a statutory footing to carry out fire investigations (not crime investigations), the matter of resources remains central to actual commitment. It would appear that while some brigades have bolstered fire investigation support structures, others are considering scaling them down.

Hopefully, those carrying out the reviews will take the opportunity to address and remedy the issues identified in the recent scoping study, the 1988 report and the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers' Association (CACFOA) strategy report, published in December 1998.

A true picture

In order to ensure that future directives are workable, it is important that the inspectors are given a true picture. Without repeating the full scoping study exercise, direct account must be taken of the views of those who are at the sharp end - the scene investigators. For it is scene investigators who endeavour to put the team approach into practice.

It is scene investigators who, having spent much time at scenes and in statement and report preparation, enter the courtroom as the impartial representatives of their organisations. In addition to the proper testing of their evidence by cross-examination, much may be made of ambiguous terminology and imprecise fire reporting, such as 'doubtful origin' and percentage causes. Well-briefed defence counsel, sometimes supported by experts of dubious provenance, may attempt to undermine, or render inadmissible, scene investigators' evidence by the misinterpretation (or cynical manipulation) of current Home Office guidelines.

Scene investigators will be on their own in negotiating this minefield. It is best they are well prepared.

The learning curve

While Her Majesty's inspectors will undoubtedly build on examples of good practice, it is equally important that local, regional and national structures are put in place to identify bad practice and failures. It is vital that lessons learnt are passed on.

The CACFOA Working Group rightly identified the development of effective fire investigation strategies as the main driver of arson strategies. The foundation for such strategies is the training of those responsible for carrying out fire scene investigations.

The theme of fire investigation training and inter-agency co-operation runs through a number of Home Office publications, dating from the early 1980s. In particular, the 1999 scoping study report encourages 'the recent emergence of cross-service training courses'.

In the 1980s, the training available was, with a few notable exceptions, inadequate and outdated. Fortunately, thanks to the publication of the Principles of Fire Investigation by Roy Cooke and Roger Ide1, and Kirk's Fire Investigation by John DeHaan2, not all British investigators were tainted with many of the myths and legends. Nonetheless, perhaps some veteran fire officers, who were simply required to complete FDR1s (and their forerunner the K433), might at times have been guilty of carrying out routine fire investigations by simply 'kicking some ash'. One would hope that such practices have ceased.

When assisting organisations in carrying out policy and practice and best value reviews, the first questions to be addressed include:

  • what has been done locally with the mountains of information gathered so far?
  • how accurate are the reports?
  • what local structures are in place for quality control?

If there is guilt to be attributed, then this does not rest solely with fire service investigators and their managers. Just as crime prevention is a matter for a number of agencies and the community at large, then so is fire prevention.

With their own sets of performance indicators and very stretched resources, can the police service claim to have given fire investigation a high priority? In the past two years there have been a number of events where very senior police officers have openly admitted that in the past, arson, let alone serious injury fires, has not figured highly on their local agenda or the national police service agenda.

Fire investigation experiences, together with fire investigation training and other related initiatives at home and abroad, demonstrate how much more there is for everyone to learn.

Testing times

Foundation courses, which have now been assessed and CPD validated by the Institution of Fire Engineers, have been developed to suit the needs of junior and more experienced fire and scenes of crime officers.

Following active involvement with the Forensic Science Working Party, which drafted the level 4 S/NVQ referred to in the scoping study, and a teaching attachment to the ATF National Academy in Georgia, USA, a 15-day advanced practical fire investigation course has been organised.

Earlier this year, experienced fire and scenes of crime officers attended the inaugural advanced course at the Ministry of Defence police training centre in Essex. Over a period of three weeks, students attended classroom sessions that built on the foundation course topics.

Other presentations and practical workshops covered scene management, information gathering and witness skills, handling the media, courtroom techniques etc. Most importantly, participants observed accelerated and non-accelerated fires, investigated temperature-instrumented fires in authentically furnished compartments, took part in practical exercises, investigated and documented scenes, and each had their findings tested in a court environment.

By developing the inter-agency theme and allowing the participants to work in small syndicates, the course enabled investigators to return to their organisations more proficient and assured in their own levels of professional competence.

An on-going programme of 3-day practical exercises, investigating and debriefing real fire scenes is also being organised.

These courses, organised as partnership initiatives, are uniquely co-sponsored by major insurer, Zurich, fire-protection product manufacturers, Cape plc and Rockwool, forensic consultant, Hawkins and Associates, and other interest groups.

In addition to national conferences and regional seminars, investigative interviewing and courtroom skill seminars are being provided, designed specifically for fire scene investigators. Also under development is a fire and arson awareness programme for scientific support managers, senior detectives, Crown prosecutors and insurance investigators.

Under review

In line with the recommendations of the scoping study and several key professional bodies, the provision of knowledge-based exam options that draw upon modern publications is under consideration. Ultimately, it is hoped that it will be added as an option to the foundation courses.

The main knowledge-based examination at present is the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE) membership paper on fire investigation. This is being updated to take account of the most recent texts and provides a good measure of understanding of the basic underlying concepts.

The Forensic Science Society Diploma in Fire Investigation, which is also under review, requires a much higher level of understanding of the theory and techniques involved. This qualification has often been perceived as difficult to access but this is not necessarily the case. It is hoped that, in the future, advanced course delegates will have the opportunity to gain some additional classroom instruction to help them enter for the Diploma theory examination.

Skill and application

Knowledge and understanding are only part of what is required of a competent fire scene examiner. There must also be sufficient levels of skill and application to enable the correct conclusions to be reached. This was the starting point for the Forensic Lead Body Working Party when drafting the proposed S/NVQ Level 4 competency standards.

Although the fire service might remain committed to S/NVQ as a measure of competency assessment, the recently formed Council for the Registration of Forensic Practitioners (CRFP) has decided that the S/NVQ is not the most appropriate designation for forensic scientists and crime scene examiners. Nonetheless, the CRFP is committed to the concept of competency-based qualifications and may well decide to use the draft proposals as a basis for its own requirements.

The reason much of the advanced course components were designed around the draft S/NVQ was so that provisional competency assessments could be offered. Satisfactory workplace monitoring could then allow early accreditation of individuals as competent fire scene examiners at Level 4 or its CRFP equivalent. This would be the level at which most fire scene investigators would be expected to operate.

At present the only external competency testing for fire investigators in the UK is the second (practical) part of the Forensic Science Society Diploma. The examination is set at a substantially higher level than would perhaps be considered necessary for the majority of fire investigations, but the qualification has great merit for those investigators regularly undertaking the most complex and serious cases. Anyone achieving S/NVQ or CRFP accreditation should consider moving on to the Diploma examination, if it is appropriate for their responsibilities.

Discussion is needed on the ways in which theory and practical training fit together and affect fire scene performance. A scheme has been proposed to the Forensic Science Society, IFE and others as a starting point.

It appears that the Home Office concept of staged response and actual practice within the fire service, as well as the private sector, sit well with the idea of having two or three-stage qualification and accreditation.

Proven best practice in the USA and elsewhere, demonstrates that local response levels could be harmonised and co-ordinated with regional and national structures. Earlier this year, each UK fire and police authority was provided with complimentary copies of Inter-Fire, the virtual reality training CD-ROM, and the Pocket Guide to Fire and Arson Investigation. Both of these American initiatives were designed to encourage scene investigators to adopt a systematic methodology, which is based upon the holistic approach and the wider team concept.

If the inter-agency approach is to be successful in the UK, one of the challenges for those carrying out the thematic reviews and the respondents must be to encourage and properly equip those carrying out investigations to compile accurate and meaningful information. This will further both community fire safety and arson prevention strategies. If each fire and fire-related crime is regarded as a prevention failure, any fire investigator who simply 'kicks some ash' has in some way failed to prevent future loss of life and/or potential property loss q


1. Cooke, R. and Ide, R., Principles of Fire Investigation, Institution of Fire Engineers, 1985

2. DeHaan, J., Kirk's Fire Investigation, 4th Edition, Prentice Hall


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