FIRE INVESTIGATION IN THE 90'S
There seems to be a movement afoot in the insurance industry. It seems the time has come when insurers are saying enough is enough and starting to take a tougher stance against fraud. Fraudulent fire losses have always been a problem in the insurance industry, along with all the other types of fraudulent claims faced by the industry. As a response, many insurers, and now some adjusting firms, are establishing special investigation units (SIU) and joining together in an attempt to combat these claims.
As a result of these new efforts against fraud, more fires are being investigated and investigations are becoming more thorough. This has resulted in greater use of independent investigators and several new firms have sprung up recently, particularly in the Metro area.
As this procedure goes on in the private sector, more government agencies are also getting involved by forming arson task forces, and providing better arson investigation and training to municipal, fire and police personnel. Associations such as the International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI) and the Canadian Association of Fire Investigators (CAFI) are assisting in this training program.
It is gratifying to see that more emphasis is now being placed upon fire investigation. Unfortunately, there is not a good education system in this country to train fire investigators to step forward and do the job that is required by insurers. This allows anyone to proclaim themselves a fire investigator and attempt to sell their services to the insurance industry. As a result, some of the fire investigation reports that have been prepared by others and presented to me for review are sadly lacking in quality and are misleading in many instances. This has always been a problem in the fire investigation field, but the trend seems to be increasing as the demand for investigators rises.
Several articles have been published recently in magazines outlining what insurers should be looking for when they hire a fire expert. The time to think about who will be your fire expert is before they attend the job site, not when the case reaches the courts. Many times Walters Consulting Corporation has bee retained in the late stages when the original expert has fallen apart and the lawyer is scrambling to find a replacement. We can be of some assistance in these matters, but it would be much better to get involved initially and actually see the site firsthand.
A fire investigation can lead to various results such as the finding of arson and denial of the claim, which inevitably leads to civil suit with the insured suing the insurer. The investigation can also lead to a finding of an accidental cause due to negligence of some other party, such as a tenant, equipment manufacturer, building designer, or municipal inspector. This wide array of outcomes indicates that the investigator must have a great deal of experience, knowledge and the resources of a team to draw upon. No one person can be an expert in all areas required in the investigation.
If charged with the duty of selecting a fire investigator, look to an established firm with an experienced team of experts in fire investigation and in court presenting evidence. The insurer should then gather resumes from the various experts on the team to ensure that there are no surprises later in the investigation. This is a standard step taken by most law firms.
Once you have identified a firm with experienced experts, you need to determine that they are using the most up-to-date techniques available. In the field of fire investigation, the National Fire Protection Association has recently issued an updated version of the NFPA 921 Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations. This Guide was updated on February 7, 1995. In the past, many investigators relied on a text book known as Kirk's Fire Investigation and, although this is still a very good reference test, it is being displaced by this new NFPA 921 Guideline.
There is a movement in the industry to have investigators trained using this new standard and having investigators certified after such training. This will make it much easier for the insurers to identify certified fire investigators and rely on their training and knowledge of the NFPA 921 to conduct a proper site investigation.
This is just a starting point for a fire investigator, since the site investigation is a crucial step, but it is only the first step. Follow-up work may be necessary by reviewing Building Codes, Fire Codes, and NFPA Standards on various points such as sprinklers and other fire protection equipment, review of inspection documents, design documents, and a review of the fire fighting activities. This analysis may require the input of civil, structural, electrical, and metallurgical engineers, along with retired fire inspectors and fire fighters. It also may require computer modelling using one of the many computer fire models now available, or it may require preparation of drawings, models, or fully three-dimensional computer animations. While it is possible to hire various experts from various firms to conduct parts of the investigation, it is much more economical to source all these experts through one firm.
Keep in mind that fire investigation and the crime of arson are very specialized areas, and there is rarely sufficient evidence to carry into the court room to prove your case conclusively. More often than not, the fire destroys most of the key evidence making it necessary for your team of experts to form opinions based on the remaining evidence. Ultimately, various parties will produce experts with different opinions based on the same incomplete base of facts. This makes it essential that your expert team is well experienced and well qualified so that their opinions are the ones accepted by the judge and jury.
As our firm expands across the nation, we are bringing the capability of top quality investigations in fire investigation and other forensic engineering matters with us.
As we form new partnerships with insurers, you can rest assured that when our firm is retained, you will be getting a team of highly qualified experts and a top quality report that you can rely on. We are available for a free consultation on any matter.
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Walters Forensic Engineering | 277 Wellington
Street West, Suite 800 | Toronto, ON M5V 3H2