With the publishing of “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward” by the National Academy of Science in 2009, a shot was fired across the bow of the various forensic disciplines, specifically including forensic fire investigation – a duty and responsibility inevitably passed on to every fire department charged with serving their community. While this white paper was critical of the various forensic disciplines, it did provide recommendations to improvement through the implementation of standards based training and proposed credential based certification and accreditation.
Fortunately, there are existing pathways to improve training and credentialing through state and national/international organizations offering programs and certifications based on NFPA 1033, Standard for Professional Qualifications for Fire Investigator. These programs routinely provide training to the various performance elements presented in NFPA 1033 and utilize the complementary document, NFPA 921, Guide to Fire and Explosion Investigations, as the primary point of reference. NFPA 921, a consensus document revised on a three-year cycle serves as the primary reference source outlining the body of scientific fire investigation knowledge utilized during the course of forensic fire investigations and establishes use of the Scientific Method as a fundamental requirement of a competent fire investigation. To add credibility and oversight to the various credentialing organizations, the National Board on Fire Service Qualifications (ProBoard) and the International Fire Service Accreditation Congress (IFSAC) have established a review and accreditation process that ensures these programs appropriately test to the identified standard.
Fire Investigation is a complex endeavor requiring a comprehensive understanding of scientific concepts and appropriately applying this knowledge in a quest to identify the origin and cause of a fire incident. A properly trained fire investigation unit is a critical component of an effective fire prevention strategy and can be a key contributor to a successful fire safety and public education program. One of the key goals of a competent fire investigation is accountability. The fire investigation team is responsible for accurately determining the origin and cause of fire incidents and the findings can result in the holding of individual accountability in criminal litigation, potentially depriving citizens of their civil liberties. Another function of the fire investigation process is to identify deficiencies or defects in products or components so manufacturers, installers or others are held accountable, leading to the issuance of safety recalls or corrections to the design, manufacture or installation protocols resulting in improved public safety. The identification of structural design deficiencies or defects that adversely affect fire growth and development can also support the advancement of building codes and life safety codes, increasing public safety throughout our communities.
With so much at stake in criminal and civil ligation, fire investigators and their work product are under increased scrutiny in court or other proceedings. Daubert challenges (or other equivalent challenges to the qualifications, training, practical experience, and credentials of an investigator prior to proffering expert opinions in court or judicial proceedings) are routine with a focus of attacking or questioning whether an investigator meets the national qualifications standards outlined in NFPA 1033 and attempting to disqualify or limit their expert testimony in legal proceedings. These challenges also focus on whether the investigator appropriately utilized best practices or recommended guidelines outlined in NFPA 921 during the course of their investigation. Challenges to historic cases and previous judicial findings are also on the rise as the Innocence Project and like organizations expand their focus from DNA related cases to include deficiencies in eyewitness testimony and forensic practices, specifically including fire investigation. Civil action against public service agencies alleging the effective equivalent of professional malpractice because of nonadherence to national standards and investigative protocols have been initiated on behalf of individuals that have allegedly been falsely accused of arson or have been granted post trial relief during appeal or judicial review. This increased scrutiny places our public agencies and their investigators at increased risk of civil exposure and in extreme cases, allegations of criminal misconduct related to significantly deficient investigations resulting in false arrest and malicious prosecution.
The time has come for the fire service to recognize the increased risks and scrutiny the performance of their duties will encounter in both the civil and criminal environment. Fire investigators and the findings of their investigations will encounter more challenges and critical review, especially when civil liberties are at stake. It is critical that we heed the warning signs and work together to ensure ongoing training and professional credentialing become commonplace within the fire service. The fire service has a long tradition of providing fire suppression and life safety training to their personnel, routinely utilizing codes and standards as the foundation. It is now time to expand these efforts to incorporate fire investigation personnel ensuring that they have the proper knowledge, skills, and abilities to perform their delegated duties in an effective and efficient manner. Utilizing NFPA 1033 as the guiding document to establish internal job descriptions, evaluation documents and training protocols the public service agencies can move toward ensuring they employ an effective investigative team that properly supports their comprehensive fire prevention and fire education strategies. Applying a blend of internal training requirements and the utilization of external training resources and credentialing systems, public agencies can ensure that their personnel are well equipped to serve the public within their
Fortunately, a network of organizations dedicated to the fire service and forensic fire investigation have embraced the tenets of NFPA 1033 and NFPA 921 and are paving the pathway to highly trained and properly credentialed fire investigators. Working with resources made available through the Assistance to Firefighter, Fire Prevention and Safety grant, the International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI) has established the CFITrainer.Net ® distance-learning platform. This platform is available free of charge to all users, and provides foundational training based on the topical requirements defined in the administrative chapter of NFPA 1033. These training modules, designed at the knowledge and understanding level of the cognitive educational domain, provide a resource for fire investigators to develop a knowledge base that can be further developed and enhanced through participation in residential training programs and through gaining real world experiences. This continuum of continued professional development allows investigators to build an effective portfolio or curriculum vitae that will prepare them to successfully challenging the application requirements of recognized and accredited professional credentialing systems based on the accepted industry 1033 standard. This recognition by independent agencies or organizations adds a layer of credibility that will build confidence within the forensic fire investigation community, the legal community, and with the public at large.
As the fire service has embraced standards based qualifications and testing for firefighters, fire officers, and other specialty positions, it is now time to adopt and apply this same concept to the fire investigation profession. Having competent and qualified fire investigation personnel will protect the agency from increased scrutiny and litigation while serving to support the fire prevention strategy through the conduct of competent fire investigations that accurately identify fire causation factors leading to the identification of remedial or preventive factors including code revision, policy changes, and product revision. The path to progress is clear and is readily available. Public service agencies must commit to adequately embracing and supporting their fire investigation mission by dedicating appropriate personnel to this critical mission and allocating appropriate equipment and resources to ensure successful professional development. The benefit of an effective investigative team is real and now is the time to move toward aggressively training dedicated personnel to the accepted national standard. Working together, we can continue to improve the fire investigation industry and meet the goals and expectations presented in the “Path Forward” report. By continually working toward requiring properly qualified and credentialed fire investigators, the fire service will improve their perception within the forensic fire investigation industry and be adequately prepared to face and repel the challenges of public and legal scrutiny. Now is the time to move toward increased competency based training for fire investigators, as the risk of adverse action is real and gets stronger every day.
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