FIRE SMART: Investigations explained

Lawrie Skolrood provides some information on fire investigations

Why do fire investigations when you are only going to say the cause cannot be determined?” was a question I was asked just recently.

A fair enough question I guess, especially when a good many fire causes are in fact classified as undetermined. The answer really needs to begin with an explanation of why a fire department does fire investigations in the first place.

In B.C. the Fire Services Act requires municipalities to investigate in a general way the cause of fires within their boundaries and that task is usually assigned to the fire department. The phrase, “in a general way,” makes the task seem less onerous. However, it is very misleading and a recipe for trouble if it is followed literally because everyone these days expects answers and preferably the correct ones.

When I say everyone, I mean owners, occupants, neighbours, the media, local government, the general public, insurance companies, utilities, and the police to name just a few. As well, today’s issues of affixing blame and the recovery of money complicated with the threat of litigation further demand that thorough investigations are done in order to correctly answer the question of, “What caused the fire.” You are either all in or you are all out when it comes to the fire investigation business.

Unfortunately, a big problem with fire investigation is that sometimes the evidence that will definitively determine a cause is missing. Lack of evidence allows speculation and suspicion to come to the forefront and can misdirect the truth regarding what really happened! The true irony of the situation is that you have to go through a thorough fire investigation process in order determine that the cause of the fire can’t be determined. Interestingly enough, you might even find all the evidence you need to prove your theory but simply can’t find any evidence to disprove the possibility of other causes. Due to the impact of today’s necessity to find blame and the consequences affixed to it, fire investigations must be done properly and be 100 per cent accurate. Anything less generally has to fall into that cannot be determined category. There just can’t be a possibly or might have outcome.

Time provides another challenge when it comes to fire investigations. Securing a scene has become more difficult and expensive. Along with the pressure of getting back to normal in order to have a place to live or do business, the need for performing time effective fire investigations has become paramount.

The trouble is that each fire tends to offer its own unique puzzle as to how it started ranging from the obvious to the complex. In more complicated fire situations, product research, site safety, weather, lab results and expert reports are just some of the realities of a fire investigation that can delay things considerably. The time required to complete any fire investigation is simply the time it takes to find the answers that are needed to determine the cause of the fire. In today’s world, the real problem comes as a result of time equating to money and a situation quickly changing from how important to how costly.

This can ultimately lead to a cause becoming undetermined just through the lack of resources and the financial ability to go forward.

All that being said, I cannot help but remember a story told to me by another fire investigator regarding an experience he had in court. He told me that he was reprimanded by a judge who was unsatisfied with his explanation as to the lack of a conclusion in a fire case.

The judge sternly informed him that, “There is no excuse for not completing a fire investigation!” Somewhat embarrassed, he left court that day quite convinced that the judge’s intent was to send him a strong message emphasizing that as a fire investigator, he was obligated to pursue the necessary answers until he obtained them or at the very least he was able to defend the fact that there were no answers to be found.

So in summary for all of those people wondering and my inquisitive colleague, sometimes there is just no way of knowing for sure. However, there is still an obligation to do everything you can to find the correct answer, even if one does not exist. The fact that the cause of a fire cannot be determined is not the easy way out.

It comes as a result of exhausting the possibilities of proving what indeed did happen! The significance being, that although it might not necessarily be a satisfactory end, it is certainly a realistic end that is based on fact.


Lawrie Skolrood is a deputy fire chief with Vernon Fire Rescue Services.