Much knowledge can be obtained through analyses of fires. Fire investigations give increased knowledge about how and why fires start, why fires developed as they did and how to prevent it happening again. SP Fire Research assists with independent investigations and analyses of fires on request from the police, insurance companies, the justice administration, other authorities, lawyers and private companies.
By law, the Norwegian police must investigate all fire incidents to determine if the fire was an act of arson. It is, however, a fact that the police do not investigate all fires. Due to scarce resources and busy schedules, some fires are unfortunately not investigated as thoroughly as they ought to be. This may especially be the case for incidents where the fire cause appears to be obvious.
From the police’s point of view this may be a reasonable use of resources, but it reduces the amount of valuable knowledge available to the field of fire safety – and society. In our opinion there has been too little focus on fire investigation and analysis to reveal why fires started, how and why they spread, and which safety barriers worked and which did not. We see a need for a systematic approach to fire investigation to be able to answer these questions.
New Norwegian regulations require analysis of fires
The Norwegian Fire Prevention Act requires that municipalities assess incidents to achieve continuous learning and improvement related to accident prevention and preparedness. In the new regulations that came into force 1st of January 2016 this is explicitly stated as follows (our translation): “After fires that had or could have had serious consequences for lives, health, the environment or property, the municipality shall assess if preventive work has had the desired effect.”
An unexploited potential for learning
The new regulations may increase the available knowledge through fire investigations and analyses. It will, however, require that all information from the investigations is collected in a systematic fashion to be able to extract the knowledge of common interest to increase fire safety in society. Increased fire safety can be obtained through e.g. changes in regulations, development of guidelines or withdrawal of unsafe products from the market. If weaknesses connected to products represent a fire hazard, for example by contributing to faster fire spread or impairment of fire barriers, cooperation with the industry to improve the product may be a solution. To be able to learn from fires the quality of the investigation work is of crucial importance.
SP Fire Research in Trondheim has extensive experience with fire investigations and analyses of fires. We have completed projects that involved assessments of police investigation reports and other types of documentation, and also tasks where observations of the fire scene have been an important part of the analysis. We are regularly appointed as a fire expert witness in criminal court cases, and in addition we have performed projects for insurance companies, industry and lawyers related to fire incidents. We have also performed analyses of fires for authorities and for the Accident Investigation Board Norway.
The methodology applied for all these types of fire investigation cases is the same. Fire investigations require a systematic and traceable approach, and in 2015 we developed a report for the Norwegian Directorate for Civil Protection (DSB) describing a generic procedure for analysis of fire incidents (“Metode for evaluering av branner”, in Norwegian). The procedure can be used as a tool for fire brigades and other parties that are involved in this kind of work to ensure the quality of the analysis.
The tasks may involve different activities, depending on the purpose of the analysis:
• Mapping and analysis of the incident and the cause of fire
• Fire testing and documentation of materials and objects involved in the fire
• Ad-hoc fire tests at small- or large-scale to elucidate problems and theories
• Assessment of fire preparedness and technical and organizational fire preventive measures
We believe that analyses of fire incidents represent an unexploited potential for learning. With a relatively modest effort information and knowledge can be collected for the benefit of the society. It requires, however, both initiative and funding from the authorities.
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