Five Key Tips for Fire Investigation

1 Keep an open mind

It is useful to have a working hypothesis based on the available information, however this hypothesis should be tested in the light of new information and observations, and may well need to be revised. The process should be fire investigation not arson investigation. In terms of determining the origin and cause of the fire, consider all the reasonable alternatives. More importantly, record what you've considered and the reasons why you have dismissed it. Remember you are not just trying to convince yourself but also another investigator, court or jury. Any such enquiry could take place months or even years after the fire, so it is important to record your thought processes at the time.

2 Adopt a methodical approach

A fire scene examination can be a complex undertaking, physically demanding, in often difficult conditions. You may be required to examine a large and/or complex area with hazardous materials and items present. It will be necessary to collate information from a number of different sources. You will need to take control of the examination. Use proformas, checklists and standard forms to ensure you don't miss anything.

3 Record as much detail as possible

Photographs, sketches and notes provide the means to collate as much detailed information as possible. The relevance of some of this information may not be apparent at the time, but further information could place it in context. The success of any future court proceedings or cold case review will depend on the quality of the initial examination.

4 Keep up to date with knowledge and literature

Fire science is an evolving subject. Many people are still relying on "old myths" regarding things like the crazing of glass and liquid pour patterns etc. The news is awash with instances of convictions based on a poor understanding of the processes involved. Make sure your forensic science and fire investigation books are up to date, and read the relevant literature and journals. Attend meetings to discuss findings with colleagues and use internet forums and social media appropriately.

5 Know your limitations and when it's time to ask for help

It's rare for one individual to have all the skills and knowledge required in every case. A "team approach" is frequently required. Consider the use of specialists e.g. electrical or structural engineers, HSE, other forensic scientists, plan drawers etc and remember a second opinion can provide new lines of inquiries and/or additional confidence in your findings.