Forensic Fire Investigations Need More Scientific Input, AAAS Report Finds

July 12, 2017 – The American Association for the Advancement of Science released a report Tuesday on the quality of fire investigation in the United States. It explores inaccuracies in the existing literature about fire investigation that can affect the beliefs and behavior of investigators; assesses laboratory analytical methods and the state of computer modeling of fires; weighs the value of dogs over current electronic “sniffing” devices for finding residues of ignitable liquids at fire scenes; and stresses the need for more use of controlled test fires under a wide variety of conditions to produce “ground truth” for fire investigators.

The report, particularly timely following the deadly fire that engulfed West London’s residential housing tower in the early morning hours of June 14, covers the two phases of fire investigation – the on-scene effort to determine the origin and cause of a fire, and the laboratory analysis of debris from the fire, which can provide important information contributing to a conclusion about the cause of the fire. It was written by a working group that included a fire investigator, two analytical chemists, a human factors expert and a fire engineer. It is the first of two forensic science assessments organized by the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program.

Among the report’s conclusions:

  • Determining the origin and cause of a fire can often be very challenging, despite the development of new tools and methods to help fire investigators.
  • More research is needed on the consistency and accuracy of fire investigators, including the cognitive biases they can bring to an investigation. Error rates should be calculated and more consensus developed on the types of fires that are the most difficult to analyze.
  • Researchers should conduct more tests to determine the effectiveness of electronic “sniffing” devices compared to canine detection teams in locating samples at the fire scene for laboratory analysis.
  • Although the analytical chemistry used in fire debris analysis is more mature and reliable than fire scene investigation, care must be taken to distinguish tell-tale ignitable residues from products of the fire itself.

The full report is available here.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal Science, as well as Science Translational Medicine; Science Signaling; a digital, open-access journal, Science Advances; Science Immunology; and Science Robotics. AAAS was founded in 1848 and includes nearly 250 affiliated societies and academies of science, serving 10 million individuals. Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world. The nonprofit AAAS is open to all and fulfills its mission to “advance science and serve society” through initiatives in science policy, international programs, science education, public engagement, and more. For additional information about AAAS, see www.aaas.org.