Fire investigation with scientific approach

Friday 20 Jun 14


Anne Simone Dederichs
Associate professor
DTU Civil Engineering
+4531 65 61 63

This year, the focus of DTU’s Fire Safety Day 2014, arranged by DTU Civil Engineering, put focus on how fire safety science can assist fire investigations. The keynote speaker, Dr. Richard J. Roby, talked about how this is done in the United States

Forensic fire scene investigations have in the recent years changed from being primarily dominated by "rules of thumb" based on personal experience to the current situation where it is based on fire safety science. Without the assistance of modern scientific knowledge and the scientific method, fire investigations can easily lead to erroneous conclusions.
Dr. Richard J. Roby, president and technical director at Combustion Science & Engineering, Columbia, MD, USA and Adjunct Professor at the University of Maryland in the United States was the main speaker at DTU Civil Engineering's Fire Safety Day 2014 on June 12. He has worked with the current theme for several decades, and he opened the conference by telling how forensic fire investigations are conducted in the United States.

The conference was arranged for the fourth time, and it focuses on fire research in the Nordic countries and in Europe, but there were contributions from all over the world. The Fire Safety Day provides a forum for open dialogue between the fire safety industry, authorities and academia, and the 150 participants seized this opportunity. Additionally, there were several exhibitors and sponsors from the industry, and their contribution enabled free entrances for students with interest in fire safety science.

Dr. Richard J. Roby told how society has undergone a fundamental transformation with respect to their role when a fire occurs: from only fighting fires to assuming the responsibility to also investigate why the fire occurred - and whether there was a criminal act behind the fire.

Rethinking cause and origin studies
Dr. Roby also stressed that in recent years, an altered vision and approach to fire-scene studies have contributed to an increased knowledge of fundamental aspects of fire safety science. "We have made great advances in our understanding of fires, from when we just ‘put out a fire with water’ – partly due to educational programs in Fire Safety Engineering, such as the Master in Fire Safety here at DTU. In particular, the understanding of ignition, fire dynamics and fire and explosion modeling has seen tremendous progress over the last 40 years," said Dr. Roby.

After a review of the latest scientific advances in fire science investigations in the United States warned Dr. Roby against making hasty and preconceived conclusions in a fire investigation. As an example, he mentioned that because a fire in a house for sale, it is not so certain that there is a criminal offense. It is therefore particularly important that the fire place studies do not focus on any forensic explanation of the fire, but rather to understand the course of the fire.

Wrongly convicted
In the United States there have been several cases where people have been convicted on the basis of preconceived notions. With respect to this, Dr. Roby stressed that a fire investigator does not have to be a laboratory scientist or have a higher degree in science or engineering. The requirement for the fire investigator is that he or she forms a hypothesis that has a sound foundation in data, knowledge and experience, and then investigates and draws a conclusion. It is also very important that the fire investigator is aware of his and her limitations, and thus is willing to obtain assistance from the vast network of scientist and laboratory personnel that is available to support the fire investigation with their specific qualifications.

Dr. Richard J. Roby ended his presentation by summarizing some basic rules for fire-scene investigations:
• Use scientific methods
• Collect and analyze objective data
• Pay attention to subjective data – i.e. testimony from witnesses
• Formulate a number of plausible hypotheses for the cause of the fire
• Test the hypotheses
• Select a final hypothesis based on the analysis