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Wolfson, Richard. Cause Determination: A Guide for Fire Investigators. Firehouse. August 1995. p. 42+.

Abstract: All fire investigations should be conducted using a systematic framework, adhering to established guidelines, and should be conducted in an unbiased fashion with the sole intention of identifying all existing facts to develop an opinion based on sound fire science principles and experience.

One factor is the documentation of a building's construction. A documented building description should include the building's use (residential, commercial or industrial), size, type of materials used in construction (wood-frame, heavy timber, etc.), roof and siding materials and type of interior construction. All rooms should be documented with the intention of determining pre-fire conditions, room contents, housekeeping and presence of fuel loads (including surface covering and carpeted flooring materials and furniture) and whether or not they are consistent with the utilization of the structure.

The structure's utilities should be inspected including the supplier of the service and inspection of electric service meters (manufacturer, model and serial numbers). The electrical distribution system should be inspected for its possible involvement. Distribution wiring should be identified. Detailed inspection of the distribution panels should be performed and any damage to electrical distribution should be documented. In addition, the gas utility, its supplier and manufacturer should be noted. Also, the heating system should be inspected in detail, including identifying the manufacturer and type of primary heating system as well as the fuel type. Secondary heating units should be inspected as well.

Fire safety systems should be documented; what type of alarm was present and did it activate? Any intrusion alarm should be documented as well to determine if the alarm was activated when the fire department entered. Presence, location and access to any and all fire escapes should be noted.

Once the above documentation has been performed, the area of origin should be determined.

To determine the cause, debris removal and reconstruction are necessary. These processes will help the investigator visualize the fire patterns. Overhaul and removal should be supervised by the fire investigator if possible. Any alterations and removal should be kept to a minimum during suppression and overahaul. Any details regarding those procedures should be shared with the investigator upon his/her arrival.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) classifies the causes of fire in four categories: Accidental (not a deliberate human act), natural causes (lightning, earthquake, wind), incendiary (set deliberately when a fire should not have been set) and undetermined (cause cannot be proven). The term "suspicious" is not an accurate description of a fire cause.

Every fire investigation should be documented with photographs of the interior and exterior of the scene. Step by step photos should be taken of the reconstruction as well as the area of origin.

For more information, contact:
PTN Publishing Corporation
445 Broad Hollow Road, Ste 21
Melville, NY 11747
Phone: (516) 845-2700

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