What do you do when notified that you are required to give evidence in court, as a result of your fire investigation findings?
One of the basic lessons for fire investigators, when first learning the fundamentals of fire investigation is that what you learn and experience from the start, should stand you in good stead throughout your career; just, don’t stop learning. The only other basic lesson is, that you should consider that every fire that you investigate will, most probably, end in a court appearance where you will be required to justify your findings and conclusions. “Best You be Prepared!”
To start with, from the beginning of any fire investigation, or scene inspection, anything and everything should be documented. The documentation of your inspection/investigation should be thorough and complete, so that years later, and it will be years later, you can remember and recollect everything that you did, observed, collected and concluded. One important point to remember when in the witness box, “I cannot recall” is not evidence; and could lead you to lose credibility as an expert.
If you are competent and can justify your qualifications, credentials and experience as a fire investigator you should be able to be qualified as an ‘Expert witness’ in court. According to WIKIPEDIA:
An expert witness, is a person whose opinion by virtue of education, training, certification, skills or experience, is accepted by the judge as an expert. The judge may consider the witness’s specialized (scientific, technical or other) opinion about evidence or about facts before the court within the expert’s area of expertise, referred to as an “expert opinion”.
The Expert witness is able to provide their opinion on matters within their expertise and training. If you provide an opinion on a liquid accelerant, and that sufficient vapours would be produced to cause an explosion; can you provide the vapour production rate, the flashpoint and auto-ignition temperature, relevant for that liquid? If not what have you based your opinion on? This is different to [say] a firefighter, who attended the fire that is a matter before the court, if that firefighter has no qualifications/credentials to qualify as an expert, they can only give ‘Evidence of Fact’, that is, what they did or observed; opinions may not necessarily be accepted, unless it is on a matter for which they have qualifications or training.
Most courts have an “Expert Witness Code of Conduct” which will be applied to you and to your report/statement or submission. Be sure to find the relevant code for the court, you are to appear in, and familiarise yourself with the contents, so that you are accepted, and your evidence is legally accepted. Most times you will be requested to add a paragraph to your statement/report (sometimes referred to as an “Expert Report”), stipulating that you are aware of the code of conduct and that you understand that you are bound by it when presenting your evidence. You will be appearing in the court to assist the court, not be an advocate for the party who has requested you appear in this matter. This is most important and you should show that you are impartial and unbiased with your evidence and opinions, and, that you are here to assist the court in their deliberations.
When first receiving the assignment to conduct an investigation at the scene of this fire, the “Scientific Method” (NFPA 921 2017, Chapter 4) should be adopted and utilised to reach your final hypothesis, which has been tested against the available evidence and the scientific facts. Do not confuse the way the scene is approached (least amount of damage to most amount of damage) with the ‘Scientific Method’. The way in which the scene is approached (“The assessment should include an overall look at the entire scene or structure, both interior and exterior, and all the pertinent areas.”), or order of examination is detailed in NFPA 2017, Chapter 18 – (184.108.40.206 Order of Examination) and suggests ways in which the scene should be approached, but indicates this is seen by investigators as a personal preference. It is stressed that the most important aspect is “To assess all areas that are pertinent to the origin and spread of the fire”.
The goal in documenting any fire or explosion investigation is to make an accurate recording of the investigation using media that will allow investigators to recall and communicate their observations at a later date. Common methods of accomplishing this goal include the use of photographs, video, diagrams, maps, overlays, audio recordings, laser surveys, digital and handwritten, notes, sketches, and reports. (NFPA 921, 2017, Chapter 16 – 16.1.1)
NOTE: “NFPA 921 Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigation, 2017. Has more information in relation to documenting the fire scene at Chapter 16.
When documenting, start with the date & time of call to the Fire Service, how it was reported (phone call, automatic fire alarm, etc.) who was responded, what time they arrived and what they observed on arrival (radio message/s), this then establishes the main details of the fire that is subject of this inquiry. [Can you obtain an official copy of the radio/communications log for the incident? – for use later, if required]
On your arrival, document the time you arrived, who it was that you reported to or spoke with from the fire service and/or Police? Did you speak with any owners/occupiers/witnesses at the scene; what are their names/addresses and contact details? Was this an interview or discussion? Did you record their responses to your questions (written or electronically recorded); if electronically recorded did they give their permission? Was any information from these witnesses of value to the investigation?
How did you approach the fire scene; what did you observe; what did these observations mean to you; did you photograph the scene (Important: “You can never have enough photographs” Author); what evidence did you collect or document (are you legally authorised to collect physical evidence?); did you find or observe evidence that would need to be inspected by an expert in that field (Electrical appliance, gas appliance, computer, etc.), did you have a specialist expert inspect anything that you thought may be important to the investigation. Mainly – what did you do, why did you do it and what was the result of you doing it? What was the date/time you departed the scene?
If you don’t record everything, then when it comes to remembering everything, you will have trouble. Once you have reviewed your notes and documentation from the investigation it will be easier to answer those questions that are thrown at you when in the witness box, questioned by a tribunal member or an official inquiry. If you cannot remember, or didn’t document it at the time, your credibility is at serious risk when those questions are raised years later.
Last thing: When reviewing your notes and documents, go through and test that hypothesis for your final conclusion on the origin and cause of the fire (the Scientific Method); because, if you don’t, someone else surely will!
For more information, go to www.nfpa.org
- National Fire Protection Association, 2017. NFPA 921 Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigation. Massachusetts, USA.
- Wikipedia. 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Expert_witness(Accessed 18/4/2018)