Fire Investigations and Their Role in Prevention

In an effort to improve service to the community, it is common for fire departments to conduct an operational critique after the incident. This is an excellent tool to identify the strengths and weaknesses of our response and suppression performance. We can do the same with our fire prevention efforts by linking our fire investigations to our fire prevention program.

Many fire departments investigate fires simply because they are legally bound to do so. Most of the nationally recognized fire codes give legal authority to the fire chief to investigate fires. In some cases the responsibility of the fire investigation may be another municipal or district entity such as the police or county sheriff department. One of the obvious desired outcomes of the investigation is to determine the cause of the fire. These results must be utilized to assist the fire prevention division in the development of a holistic fire prevention program.

Fire prevention bureaus focus their efforts on inspection, education and enforcement. However, the actual fire problem in the community is not always linked to these efforts through data obtained during local fire investigations. Not using fire investigation data for prevention is not just a local issue. As we know, the fire service does not usually act in a proactive manner. We tend to continually react after the incident and not before.

For instance, we modify our nationally recognized codes only after major incidents that receive the national spot light. As we reflect back on many of our nation's tragic fire deaths, we find recommendations in fire investigation reports from outside agencies. These agencies typically conclude if automatic sprinklers were present, there is a likely hood the fire deaths would not have occurred. How many local fire investigation reports have you read which make recommendations such as this? Does your fire department take the information gathered in the fire investigation and use it for fire code development to prevent the fire from re-occurring or use the data for requirements to enhance the efforts of fire suppression personnel?

At a local level we are seeing many communities requiring residential sprinklers. What we have found is many residential sprinkler requirements are successfully passed by elected officials because sprinklers are linked as means to address the local fire problem. Fire officials use the data from their local fire investigations to show the need for sprinklers or stricter fire codes. We know proper working fire sprinklers can ensure safe evacuation and minimize damage when a fire does occur, but sprinklers alone do not address our desire to prevent the event from occurring through our fire investigation efforts. The outcome of the fire investigation should impact our local code development and research process, our inspection efforts and most importantly, our fire and life safety education efforts. Only collecting investigation data is not enough. As fire professionals, we need to evaluate the collected data for patterns and trend analysis. By identifying trends in our community's fire incidents we can identify our target hazards as well as our target audience for our fire and life safety education programs.

For example, if a community experiences fire deaths in a number of single family residential occupancies the fire department needs to look at similarities in the fires which could be used in their fire prevention efforts. Perhaps all of the victims of the fires were senior citizens without working smoke detectors. A review of the cause of fires could reveal a common element such as unattended cooking or discarded smoking materials.

These trends could be utilized to prevent harm or injury by identifying a target audience and topic for our fire and life safety education programs. In this example, we would discover our fire and life safety educator needs to review the content of his or her programs for the senior citizens of the community. It could even be there may not even be a program for senior citizens. Through our research we then have identified the need for such a program and already have a few topics for the presentation. If the fire investigation revealed smoke detectors were not present, this is an opportunity to seek ways of ensuring senior citizens are provided with smoke detectors in their homes.

There are a number of benefits to collecting fire investigation data. Fire department collected fire investigation data can be used for:

  • Improving public awareness and education
  • Implementing more aggressive inspections
  • Providing input into fire fighting tactics and operations
  • Modifying regulatory requirements for buildings and products
  • Preventing or mitigating similar occurrences

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