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Forensic Science and Fire Investigation. Texas Forensic Science Seminar Austin, Texas October 8, 2010. presented by Steve Carman IAAI-CFI, ATF CFI (Retired). Carman & Associates Fire Investigation Dunsmuir, California State of the Profession.

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forensic science and fire investigation

Forensic Science and Fire Investigation

Texas Forensic Science Seminar

Austin, Texas

October 8, 2010


presented by

Steve Carman


Carman & Associates Fire Investigation

Dunsmuir, California

state of the profession
State of the Profession

It is quite likely that no other profession has experienced a more significant shift in the basic principles from which it operates in the last 30 years than fire investigation.

state of the profession4
State of the Profession

In most areas of forensic science, practitioners are either educated scientists or at least based their efforts on scientific principles.

In fire investigation, this has not always been the case.

state of the profession5
State of the Profession

For years, the vast majority of people involved in the investigation of fires came from the ranks of the fire service or law enforcement.

Until the past few decades, fire investigation training was not generally based upon strict scientific principles, but on anecdotal information.

art and science
Art and Science

For many years, the fire investigation profession was considered by those in its ranks as a mixture of ART and SCIENCE.

The ART related to how investigators processed scenes as well as interpreted the evidence. In reality, it was another phrase for “Anecdotal”.

Science was considered but not emphasized.








Fire Investigation: Art vs. Science



For much of the past fifty years, fire investigation training was generally delivered via “on-the-job” training in a form akin to apprenticeship.

The more experienced would pass on their ideas and beliefs to the newer members of their organizations.

training education
Training / Education

Most forensic science professionals working in areas such as DNA, serology, trace analysis and similar specialties are college-trained scientists.

Historically, most fire investigators came from the ranks of fire fighters or law enforcement officers. Most are not scientists.


In a recent, non-published survey of 422 fire investigators by the National Center for Forensic Sciences, the following statistics were gathered:

67 % had no college degree

23 % had a general degree

10 % had a science related degree


The fire investigation field originally developed in order to meet one of two needs:

1) To bring arsonists to justice in case of criminal fires,

2) To learn what caused fires in order to try and prevent them in the future.

forensic evidence
Forensic Evidence

What physical evidence did fire investigators often use to identify the cause of fires?

1) Physical artifacts found at fire scenes such as trace evidence, gasoline cans, trailers, incendiary devices, etc.

2) Burn patterns that investigators would interpret with regards to what caused them.

forensic evidence13
Forensic Evidence

It is the burn patterns that have been the most common evidence used by investigators to enable them to find the area(s) of fire origin which could then enable them to try and identify the fire cause(s).

interpretation of evidence
Interpretation of Evidence

Until about 20 years ago, the identification and interpretation of burn patterns at fire scenes was part of the ART of the profession.

Seldom was “provable science” used to establish how the patterns were created and what they meant.

While some may have argued they were relying on science, what they were really relying on were non-scientific myths and legends.

interpretation of evidence15
Interpretation of Evidence

While some may have argued they were relying on science, what they were really relying on were non-scientific myths and legends.

art vs science
Art vs. Science

In the mid-1980s, some of the earliest coordinated efforts by the fire investigation community started to improve the reliability of the profession.

Guidelines were published by the National Bureau of Standards to attempt to standardize the practice.

art vs science20
Art vs. Science

Unfortunately, the guidelines continued to include several non-scientific, anecdotal myths and legends for use by investigators in evaluating fire scenes.

These were the same myths and legends that had for years, been handed down from one fire investigator to the next.

art vs science21
Art vs. Science

From the 1970s onward, while field investigators refined their art, more and more college-trained scientists began studying the physics, chemistry, thermodynamics and fluid dynamics principles involved in fire behavior.

Unfortunately, these two groups had little interaction.

early standardization
Early Standardization

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, more investigation organizations arose. These groups were often formed with the intent of offering improved training.

Participation was voluntary and sporadic.

Some fire departments and organizations participated eagerly, others much less so.

early standardization23
Early Standardization

Various guidelines were proffered to improve fire investigations.

They continued to be mostly anecdotal and not based on hard science.

These guidelines contained many of the modern day “Myths and Legends” of fire investigations.

myths and legends
Myths and Legends

Some of the myths and legends involved issues such as:





myths and legends25
Myths and Legends




Almost none of these came about as the result of hard-scientific research. Even so, they were (and in some cases still are) relied upon by fire investigators throughout the country.

myths and legends26
Myths and Legends

Despite not being scientifically valid, some of these “guidelines” were (and still may be) commonly relied upon by investigators in determining areas of fire origin and fire cause.

Many investigators also used to (and sometimes still do) use them to defend their conclusions in court.

fire in the courts
Fire in the Courts

Courts involved in both criminal and civil litigation have relied upon experts in fire investigation who were trained in the lore of these “myths and legends”.

Allowance of these theories had for many years been based upon their level of “general acceptance” amongst fire investigators.

a shift in focus
A Shift in Focus

In 1992, NFPA 921, Guide to Fire and Explosion Investigation was first published by the National Fire Protection Association. Five additional editions have followed.

The NFPA 921 committee consists of participants from various disciplines:

Scientists Public Investigators

Engineers Private Investigators

Insurance Representatives

training changes
Training Changes

Also in 1992, fire investigators from the Bureau of ATF began incorporating fire science instruction from the University of Maryland’s Fire Protection Engineering staff into their training program.

Around the same time, the use of actual fire testing in training programs nationwide became a more common practice.

training changes30
Training Changes

Training programs which for years had been loosely based on an apprenticeship model began to shift towards scientific training.

Although fire scientists were familiar with the scientific principles of fire behavior for more than 30 years, the transfer of this information to the fire investigation community was just starting.

training changes31
Training Changes

Emphasis amongst the fire investigation community began to shift away from the “ART” of investigation and more towards the “SCIENCE”.

Nation-wide crazes about phenomena such as High Temperature Accelerant Fires and Spontaneous Human Combustion began to be dispelled using solid scientific principles.


Since the early 1980s, organizations like ATF working with the fire science community have consistently emphasize the importance of hard science in fire investigation.

The average fire investigation training program has become more science oriented than in years past.


Legal decisions such as Daubert, Benfiend and Kuhmo have significantly affected which experts are now accepted by the courts and what evidence is allowed into fire-related cases.

More and more fire engineers and scientists with graduate educations are getting involved in the field of fire investigation.


ATF now has the world’s largest fire research laboratory and a full time staff of scientists and engineers dedicated to assisting ATF Certified Fire Investigators and their state/local counterparts in testing hypotheses of fire origin and cause.


Organizations such as the International Association of Arson Investigators and the National Association of Fire Investigators offer certification programs for their members.

These programs promote standardization in training and achievement throughout the profession. Some are nationally accredited.

remaining challenges
Remaining Challenges

Though certification programs exist, managers in MOST fire departments, police departments and insurance companies and some attorneys still do not require their fire investigation experts to be certified.

The unfortunate reality is that many managers do not recognize the large gaps between the “state of the art” and the skill levels of many of their own investigators.

remaining challenges37
Remaining Challenges

In the past 20 years, great strides have been made by the fire investigation community to change from within.

Acceptance of these principles and dedication to improve has largely remained voluntary and a matter of self-motivation by the practitioners.

nfpa standards
NFPA Standards

By the early 1990s, NFPA was known for many of its fire safety standards, often designed by committees of professionals familiar with hard, scientific principles. These standards when adopted by local jurisdictions , carry the force of law.

nfpa standards39
NFPA Standards

NFPA 1033 – Standard for Professional Qualifications for Fire Investigator

This standard, last updated in 2009, requires investigators to have and maintain an up-to-date basic knowledge at the post-secondary level in 13 specific, science-related topics or risk not qualifying as an expert in a court of law.

standard of care
Standard of Care

To this day, NFPA 921 has never been accepted as a “standard”. It remains a “guide”.

Even so, after years of refinement, it has become more common for courts nationwide to consider it as the de facto “standard of care” in the field.

current state of the profession
Current State of the Profession

Despite great strides towards improvement in and reliability of fire investigations, significant deficiencies still exist in the field.

Many investigations are still based upon the myths of yesterday and not on science.


Agencies and organizations employing fire investigators must demand a higher level of expertise and certification.

In the absence of these internal controls, the courts will continue to be exposed to shoddy, non-scientifically based expertise.


Is your particular expert using science or art in arriving at his/her conclusions?

While improvements have been consistently made in the profession overall in the past twenty years, the question remains…

final thoughts
Final Thoughts
  • It may often be beyond the abilities of any attorneys or judges to ascertain the accuracy of fire investigator claims without:
    • 1) Extensive experience and/or training in the fire investigation arena, or
    • 2) Assistance from qualified and peer-recommended experts in fire science that can be hired for technical / peer reviews.

Steve Carman

Carman & Associates Fire Investigation

916-215-4676 cell