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NFPA 921 Sections 18-1 through 18-3.4
Origin and Cause Analysis Involving Appliances

[interFIRE VR Note: Tables and Figures have not been reproduced.]

18-1. Scope. This chapter covers the analysis of appliances as it relates to the investigation of the cause of fires. The chapter concentrates on appliances as ignition sources for fires but, where applicable, also discusses appliances as ignition sources for explosions. This chapter assumes that the origin of the fire has been determined and that an appliance at the origin is suspected of being an ignition source. Until an adequate origin determination has been done, it is not recommended that any appliances be explored as a possible ignition source.

Addressed in this chapter are appliance components, which are common to many appliances found in the home and business. Sections of this chapter also deal with specific but common residential-type appliances and with how they function.

18-2. Appliance Scene Recording. The material presented in Chapter 8 should be used where appropriate to record the scene involving an appliance. Material presented in this section is supplemental and has specific application to appliances.

18-2.1. Once a specific appliance(s) has been identified in the area of origin, it should be carefully examined before it is disturbed in any way. The appliance should be photographed in place from as many angles as possible. Photographs should be close-ups of the appliance as well as more distant photographs that will show the appliance relative to the area of origin, the nearest combustible material(s), and a readily identified reference point (e.g., window, doorway, piece of furniture, etc.). This reference point will greatly aid later reconstruction efforts in locating the exact location of the appliance at the time of the fire. If an appliance has been moved since the start of the fire, then the same photographs should be taken where it was found. If it can be established where the appliance was located at the time of the fire, such as by observing a protected area that matches the appliance base or by talking to someone familiar with the fire scene prior to the fire, the appliance should be moved to its pre-fire location and the same photographs taken. This movement by the investigator may not be done until all other necessary documentation is completed.

18-2.2. The scene should be photographed and diagrammed as described in Section 8-4. The location of the appliance within the area of origin is particularly important. The investigator should take measurements that will establish the location of the appliance.

18-2.3. Special attention in the photography and diagramming should be paid to the position of all controls (e.g., dials, switches, power settings, thermostat setting, valve position), position of movable parts (e.g., doors, vents), analog clock hand position, power supply (e.g., battery and ac house current), fuel supply, and any other item that would affect the operation of the appliance or indicate its condition at the time of the fire.

18-2.4. The manufacturer, model number, serial number, date of manufacture, warnings, recommendations, and any other data or labels located on the appliance should be documented. This information should be photographed, and notes should be taken, as these items may be difficult to photograph. Having notes will ensure that this valuable information is preserved. (See Chapter 8 for additional information.) It is frequently necessary to move the appliance to obtain these data, and this should be done with minimal disturbance to the appliance and to the remainder of the fire scene. In no case should the appliance be moved prior to the actions in 18-2.3 being completed.

18-2.5. Where the appliance has been damaged by the fire or suppression effort, every effort should be made to gather all of the parts from the appliance and keep them together. After exposure to fire, many of the components may be brittle and may disintegrate with handling, which is why it is important to document their conditions at this point. Where it is considered helpful and will not result in significant damage to the remains of the appliance, some reconstruction of the parts may be done for documentation and analysis purposes. This could include replacing detached parts and moving the appliance to its original location and position. Attempting to operate or test an appliance should not be done during the fire scene examination, as this may further damage the appliance, possibly destroying the critical clues within the appliance and its components. All testing at this point should be strictly nondestructive and only for the purpose of gathering data on the condition of the appliance after the fire. Examples of nondestructive testing include using a volt/ohmmeter to check resistance or continuity of appliance circuits.

18-3. Origin Analysis Involving Appliances. Chapter 4 and Chapter 11 deal with determining the origin of a fire in greater detail. The additional techniques and methodology presented here should be utilized when a fire involves an appliance. This is the case when the fire is confined to the appliance or when it is thought that a fire started by the appliance spread to involve other contents of the room.

18-3.1. It should be established that the appliance in question was in the area of origin. Those appliances that were clearly located outside the area of origin generally can be excluded as fire causes. In some cases, an appliance(s) remote from the area of origin may have something to do with the cause of the fire and should be included in the investigation. Examples of these are the use of an extension cord or the presence of a standing pilot on a gas appliance. Where doubt exists as to the area of origin, it should be classified as undetermined. When the origin is undetermined, examine and document the appliances in any suspected areas of origin.

18-3.2. Fire patterns should be carefully used in establishing an appliance at the point of origin. Definite and unambiguous fire patterns help to show that the appliance was at the point of origin. Other causes of these patterns should be eliminated. The degree of damage to the appliance may or may not be an adequate indication of origin. Where the overall relative damage to the scene is light to moderate and the damage to the appliance is severe, then this may be an indicator of the origin. However, if there is widespread severe damage, other causes such as drop down, fuel load (i.e., fuel gas leak), ventilation, and other effects should be considered and eliminated. If the degree of damage to the appliance is not appreciably greater than the rest of the fire origin, then the appliance should not be chosen solely by virtue of its presence.

18-3.3. Appliances that are constructed of plastic materials may be found at the fire scene with severe damage. The appliance may be severely distorted or deformed or the combustible material may be burned away leaving only wire and other metallic components. This condition of an appliance in and of itself is not an adequate indicator of the point of origin. This is especially true where there was sufficient energy from the fire in the room to cause this damage by radiant heating and ignition. Conditions approaching at, or following, flashover can have sufficient energy to produce these effects some distance from the point of origin.

18-3.4. Reconstruction of the area of origin may be necessary to locate and document those patterns and indicators that the investigator will be using to establish the area of origin. As much of the material from the appliance as possible should be returned to its original location and then recorded with photographs and a diagram. The help of a person familiar with the scene prior to the fire may be necessary.

For more information, contact:
The NFPA Library at (617) 984-7445 or e-mail

Taken from NFPA 921Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations 1998 Edition, copyright © National Fire Protection Association, 1998. This material is not the complete and official position of the NFPA on the referenced subject, which is represented only by the standard in its entirety.

Used by permission.

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