Guys, I attended a course last year that is available to any Fire Officer above Station Officer (Your Captain). That course was an eye-opener to what is going on in the US. Sure, I think the beef here is that Fire Investigators do not do their jobs properly, if at all, from some comments I've read. There are a LOT of Fire-fighters here at ECN of various ranks, although I don't think that we have a Fire Chief here. Who is it that makes the determination of the cause of a fire in the US?. Is it the Fire Chief?, his deputy?. Second to that question is what electrical experience do they have in determining that as a REAL cause of a fire. I'm not looking to put a "cat amongst the pidgeons" here, but all I want is some discussion on this. Go ahead folks.
Unless there are clear indications of foul play, I doubt fire causes get more than a cursory glance.
Little more than, say, walking in the next day and thinking "Hmmm ... bedroom fire, ashtray, must have been smoking in bed."
We have at least three different types of folks who make "cause" determinations; it is not unusual for different 'causes' to be assessed. Unless there is some sort of litigation, the various opinions are never even compared, let alone resolved.
Some places have the "investigator" as a member of the police department. Others base him in the fire department. The two departments have very different attitudes as to their jobs, take entirely different approaches, and many 'professional' associations are split along those lines. Joseph Wambaugh looked at this in some detail in his book "Fire Lover," a biography of an expert investigator gone bad.
In short, the guy with a FD background is going to focus on the details of the fire, and what code issues there might be. The guy with a police background is going to focus on "was a crime committed?"
The third type is the guy from the insurance company. In the strictest sense, his interest is going to focus on whether or not there is a claim to be paid. In many cases, he is the only one who will make a serious effort to identify the "proximate cause."
Responding Fire Dept. personnel fill out a standard NFPA form for every call, which goes into the 'great database in the sky.' This is where the bulk of fire statistics come from. Yet, this form is, at best, based upon 'first impressions.' Later information quite often contradicts the opinion expressed on the form. As far as "electrical" causes are discussed, it is mainly a question of whether it was on the customer's or PoCo side of the meter .... and then, often seems to be checked off when no other cause is immediately apparent.
To be fair, responding Fire personnel have priorities far different from those of an investigator. The FD has absolutely no interest in preserving evidence or conducting an investigation.
Let's look at just one example .... Christmas tree fires. For decades, we've seen such fires blamed on 'too many lights.' Or, too many plugs in the power strips. Yet, when the TV show "Mythbusters" tried to re-create such a fire, the ONLY way they were able to get the dried out tree to ignite was with an arcing fault. They packed that tree with as many lights as possible, even had it giving off steam ... but no ignition until they added a spark. AFAIK, these guys are the only ones who looked at the 'tree fire' in any depth.
[This message has been edited by renosteinke (edited 01-24-2007).]
In My jurisdiction a fire is first attended by a fire prevention officer/investigator. This person is often not very well trained in investigation techniques but I digress. If they suspect the cause is electrical then they must call an Electrical Inspector usually my supervisor or me. If we agree it was electrical then it can be called an electrical fire. A Halogen light igniting the curtains is not an electrical fire. But a Baseboard heater installed upside down (so the overtemp does not work) that ignites bedding or a curtain is an electrical fire related to it's installation. This report has on occasion been disputed by the insurance company who has an investigator (engineer) that has attributed fires to telco wiring with nothing to ignite except the wires itself. Anyone who thinks that correctly installed telco wires can self ignite probably should get their next diploma from the bathroom roll.
My point is there are very few qualified or even thorough enough people to determin the actual cause of a fire. We have had to go out of Province to get formal investigation training as the local fire commissioners office will not give us a seat in any of their rare courses. One positive point is that any indication of criminal activity or a fatal usually brings in a senior investigator that is day and night more qualified and thorough.
Fortunately I have a good working relationship with the FD. They are the ones that determine cause but, they do ask for my input and evaluation of the scene. I understand fire fighting from being in the Navy, and electricity from seeing how it is installed and misused. Fastest fire starter is an incandescent bulb next to almost anything that will melt or burn. My favorate quote was from a fire chief in a nearby area that declared an electrical fire only to have the utility company tell him that the power had been disaconnected for three months. His response; "It would have been an electrical fire if the power had been turned on." Alan-- Light too close to the curtains is listed as a fire...source of ignition....electrical. NFPA forms don't have a box for stupid / foolish etc.
Most christmas tree fires in Austria are still caused by wax candles getting too close to branches or falling down. I once put (as an experiment) a small, really dry tree into a campfire... it was truly impressing how fast it blazed up!
My absolute favourite quote (which i read somewhere around here years ago) was: "The cause of the fire coul not be determined since the house was not wired for electricity."
In Winnipeg (our capital city)all suspicious building fires are investigated by the joint Fire/Police arson task force with input from the fire commissioner's office to find the origin and press charges if required.
The Provincial Government owns the company that has the monopoly in Auto Insurance in Manitoba and they have one or two dedicated fire investigators on staff to investigate vehicle fires.
I am a captain with my local fire department and the township we are in has 6 full time fire inspectors and 3 part time. Most of their time is spent doing inspections and helping out with day time fire calls, all the departments are volunteer. If there is a house fire the director of fire prevention and the deputy director come out to do the inspection and determine the cause. If there is foul play suspected they will also call out the county sherrifs office arson team which brings out about five inspectors and an arson dog.
As an interesting aside, we had a house fire recently where the home owner said they had a Dell laptop with a possibly faulty battery so Dell flew out a team of investigators to do their own investigation. They did find a Dell laptop, which was not involved in the recall, on the opposite side of the house where the fire started...
[This message has been edited by JCooper (edited 01-13-2007).]
Over the past 25 years I have developed a good relationship with the FD. They have investigators and would frequently call me to "assist" with an investigation. I sometimes suspected they just wanted me to keep them company until the board up crew arrived. They were the only ones that could declare the cause of a fire. I would give them my report which was one of the following: Not electrical: no wiring in the area of origin. Probably not electrical: wiring or devices near the area of origin but no evidence that they contributed to ignition. Probably electrical: wiring or devices showed damage that may have preceeded ignition or caused ignition. Electrical: Kitchen sink over flows into the panel directly under it in the basement, electric space heater next to the couch that burned, parachute cloth drapped over the bare bulb light fixture, etc. And some were just: Undetermined. My reports were only to support their decision on determining fire origin. In my opinion, every fire department should have an Electrician / Electrical inspector available to help in investigations. Alan--
Thanks to ALL of the responses I got to this thread. I actually thought I would get a resounding "Sod-Off!" message. I started off as a Career Fireman (back when you were allowed to be called a Fireman). However, I worked up through the ranks and ended up (oddly enough) as a Fire Safety Officer. I have the utmost respect for any FF or any such person in the US, your fires are just as big as ours. Being a Station Officer, in a brigade like here means that you have to know a lot more than say a City Brigade or so forth. John (Reno) makes some very good points, there is a lot of fingers in the pie, so to speak. We don't guess the origin or the cause of a fire. We get a guy from Christchurch now to determine our suspicious fires. It's all about the money.