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Launched Aug 26 1996.

Fire Investigation Not Junk Science


One of a series of reviews and commentaries on publications of interest to the investigation process research community. The views are expressed are those of the authors of the reviewers.

Unique concerns & Specialized tools

 Too many fire investigators, fire "experts" and stake holders in fire investigation matters or outcomes are reluctant to provide an effort to learn or to develop an understanding of investigation that is not limited to the "objective" pursued. Instead they seek shortcuts in forums (mostly judicial) that cannot decide what is science and what is junk unless methodology and/or inherent logic is demonstrated.

From the International Association of Arson Investigators
For Immediate Release November 16, 1997
Contact: Benny King 314-621-1966

The International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI) has taken an important stand on a critical and controversial legal case involving the ability of trained and qualified fire investigators to testify in court.  [note here that the ability in question is to testify in court and not to conduct an investigation according to recognized methodologies]

The IAAI has filed an Amicus Brief as a "friend of the court" in the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in the case of Michigan Millers Mutual Insurance Company v. Benfield (U.S.C.A. No. 97-2138)

The fire investigator who was hired by Michigan Millers is the original Chair of the IAAI Certified Fire Investigator Committee. His experience spans as a fire investigator who has been qualified in state and federal courts throughout the country. Incredibly, the trial court held that he was not even qualified to render an opinion in court because he allegedly failed to meet the standard of the United States Supreme Court ruling in the Daubert Case.

Daubert held that expert testimony in areas of untested scientific theory ("junk science") would require proving the scientific reliability of every aspect of the analysis used to reach a final opinion. Daubert involved a previously unheard of theory for a pharmaceutical product that allegedly caused birth defects. The Supreme Court ruled there must be a scientific basis for such untested theories when offered in court.

To erroneously apply Daubert to fire investigation in this way would effectively render the observations and conclusions based on practical experience and training virtually meaningless. Arguably, finding a match at the fire scene would require proof of laboratory analysis of the wood/paper and phosphorous content. The value of deductive reasoning would be lost in the process of pursuing strict laboratory confirmation [the author of this paper seems to presume that the court would be unable to recognize a match when a match is shown. Is deductive reasoning required to identify a match?]. The importance of deductive reasoning has been recognized by every authoritative reference source, including NFPA 921.

The IAAI, in its brief, strongly objects to Daubert being applied to fire investigation. Fire investigation is not "junk science" nor a novel or untested science theory.

The IAAI fully expects that the Circuit Court of Appeals will overturn the trial court decision.

The IAAI brief was filed in July 1997 by the nationally known firm of Drew, Eckl & Farnham of Atlanta GA that specializes in fire litigation.

The IAAI Board of Directors agreed to take action immediately following the trial court decision in April of 1996. The IAAI recognized the profound impact that this decision would have on the fire investigation field if allowed to stand. The Board instructed its General Counsel to proceed with the filing of an Amicus brief in this crucial case. The matter is now pending a decision by the Court of Appeals.

At its mid-year meeting on November 15, the IAAI Board unanimously reaffirmed its position in support of the brief.

The IAAI is the internationally recognized authority in fire investigation. The Association is approaching its fiftieth anniversary in 1999. The IAAI acknowledges and recognizes NFPA 921 and NFPA 1033 as references along with other recognized reference materials for purposes of its training and certification programs.

- 30 -

 The question concerning junk science is referred to in more appropriate terms in an article posted on this site about BAD SCIENCE. Go to BAD SCIENCE

The paper describes some universal investigation problems for investigators exposed to court procedures and testing (the situation is different for investigators whose work is hardly ever examined and/or tested...). As mentioned in the Garrison paper on BAD SCIENCE, many investigators in fact, are simply not versed in the ways of good scientific method. Ethical guidelines are offered: Do Not Testify To Methods Beyond Your Expertise or Do Not Selectively Ignore Evidence To The Contrary or Do Not Overstate Your Qualifications.

The following material is © NFPA 1998. It is witness to the standards development process at NFPA. The process is so transparent that a committee decision can be appealed, and denied:

 Appeals - Short Form Decisions
NFPA 921
Short Form Decision on Council Agenda Item: 98-6(a)
SC #98-6(a)

20 January, 1998

Mr. James A. Burns
State of New York
Department of State
41 State Street
Albany, NY 12231-0001

Dear Mr. Burns:

At its meeting on 14 - 15 January 1998, the Standards Council considered your appeal requesting the Council to accept Comments 921-156 and 921-157 on the proposed 1998 edition of NFPA 921, Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations. After review and consideration of all the information available, the Council voted to deny the appeal. The effect of this decision is to reject Comments 921-156 and 921-157 for the 1998 edition of NFPA 921.

A full decision on this agenda item will be issued in due course, and will automatically be sent to you and all parties that requested a copy at the hearing or whom are otherwise directly involved with this issue.


Casey C. Grant, P.E.
Secretary, NFPA Standards Council

M. Brodoff, A. Cote, L. Nisbet, C. Peterson, J. Shannon
Members, Technical Committee on Fire Investigations
Members, Standards Council

Last updated: 06-FEB-1998
© 1998, NFPA, National Fire Protection Association

921- 156 - (9-5.3.4): Reject
SUBMITTER: Richard Barlette, New York State Office of Fire
Prevention &;Control
RECOMMENDATION: Rebuttal to change 9-5.3.4 to read:
9-5.3.4 Canine Teams. Canine ignitable liquid detection teams certified by a recognized agency or organizations have proven their ability to search, identify and locate ignitable vapor residue.
Further, they have been trained to discriminate and not indicate on natural terpenes and synthetic hydrocarbon materials such as styrofoam, foam backed carpeting and roofing materials, etc.
A successful canine team should consist of a certified canine and fire investigator which allows the CFI [IAAI Certified Fire Investigator] to interpret and compare the canines olfactory indication to the physical dynamics of the fire scene. This gives the investigator the ability to corroborate the location of the canines hit with his or her own conclusion based on sound fire investigative techniques. This also allows the investigator to be able to testify in court as to his or her own conclusions that the accelerant was introduced in the location indicated by the canine partner, despite the possibility of a negative finding by a forensic laboratory. [...]
The last thing we need in this war against arson is to have the Forensic Science Community trying to limit available evidence to prosecutors.

COMMITTEE STATEMENT: The committee has reviewed this issue extensively and believes that the current language represents the scientific state of the art relative to the detection of ignitable liquids by canine teams.
© NFPA 1998

 921- 157 - (9-5.3.4): Reject
SUBMITTER: Richard Rogoainski, New York Office of Fire
Prevention and Control
RECOMMENDATION: Delete the following text:
"Any canine alert not confirmed by laboratory analysis should not be considered valid."
SUBSTANTIATION: The above statement should be deleted.
There are too many reasons that samples will come back negative, e.g., not taken in right area, improper packaging, not proper analysis of sample, etc. that can occur. It should not be automatically balanced on the K-9 team backs.

COMMITTEE STATEMENT: The committee has reviewed this issue extensively and believes that the current language represents the scientific state of the art relative to the detection of ignitable liquids by canine teams.
© NFPA 1998

 The accent on tools, i.e., "specialized tools", seems to be a major trend. Think of canine-handler teams (serving law enforcement agencies in the "war against arson" or terrorism), fire modelling programs, virtual representations for either training or demonstration purposes, etc.

It is understood that developments of all kinds may be integrated in a comprehensive methodological approach.

The Technical Committee on NFPA 921, Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations was wise to maintain the requirement for sound scientific corroboration to canine alerts, and to prefer that to a subjective corroboration of the alert by the dog handler.

A parent and consequential issue is designed by the IAAI and IAAI certified fire investigators (CFIs) when the matter is set in the context of a war against arson:

- the necessity of corroboration by available scientific / forensic methods is downplayed, and, most of all,

- the rationale behind the requirement for scientific methodologies and logic is denied.


 Hugh Chicoine tpi, CFEI, CFII (NAFI, NFPA)
07 Feb. 1998