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Fire Investigation Part 2 – What Are Fire Investigation Reports Used For?

July 22, 2011

The primary reason for investigating a fire is to prevent it from happening again.  If we’ve done our jobs right and gleaned valid information from the fire scene, we can use that information for prevention purposes.  One day we may find a defect in a kitchen appliance that leads to fire.  Our report gets reviewed by the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the faulty product may get recalled so we don’t have any more of those fires.  Sometimes we determine that a certain risky behavior led to the fire and we use those facts in our public education campaigns (you may have seen our billboards, move theater ads, newsletters, etc.).  Sometimes we determine that cause was a criminal act and we work with law enforcement to apprehend and convict the perpetrator and protect the community from an arsonist.  You can see how important a fire investigation report can be to everyone.

Sometimes we can get the origin and cause determined and ready to document by the time the suppression crews are leaving the scene.  Other times we spend days on the fire scene and weeks following up in the office and in the field.  In some cases we’re able to determine all of the elements of the cause and we can conclusively report the cause.  Often important elements of cause have been destroyed by fire and we’re forced to say the fire was ‘probably’ or ‘possibly’ caused by some factor.  Sometimes damage from the fire is so complete, we can’t determine anything and the cause goes down as ‘undetermined’ (we hate that, but it happens).  The complexities of each case dictate how long it takes to finish a fire investigation.  What is important is that we’ve thoroughly and methodically processed the fire scene following nationally recognized protocols for determining the origin and cause of the fire.  The validity of the information we glean is crucial.

Once the report is finished, it is a public document.  The public paid for the work.  The public owns the report.  It can be requested as a public document and we release it in accordance with the state Public Records Act (RCW 42.56).  Insurance companies, fire victims, law enforcement, news media, the courts and a long list of attorneys frequently request our reports to deal with the aftermath of fires.  There are some cautions that must be observed with that report in accordance with the Washington’s Public Records Act.  For instance, we can’t advertise a witness that helped identify a suspect until the suspect is apprehended and the witness is safe.  Washington’s Public Records Act provides protections for victims and witnesses and we follow that law closely.  So there may be legal issues that dictate when we can release a report, or how much of the report must be confidential.  Generally, the fire investigation report is regarded as a public document and that data is collected and analyzed to help make the world less fire-prone.

Our fire data (including investigation results) is reported annually to the State of Washington.  It is also forwarded to the National Fire Protection Association for analysis.  State and national fire trends are used by fire prevention agencies to modify product design, adjust fire codes, specify clothing safety parameters, implement building design changes and even alter motor vehicle designs; all so that the consumer’s world is a little bit safer from fire.  If you’ve been through a fire, you know that every little bit helps.  That’s what the investigators are out there for.

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