According to a report by the Flame Retardants Association of India (FRAI), India loses about 25,000 lives annually to fire.* With one of the highest global rates of death due to fires, India has one of highest rate of fatalities from fire in the world. This may be due to a combination of factors including high population density, unauthorized construction preventing fire service from proper response, and legacy construction (e.g., Old Delhi) where it is difficult to locate fire stations to serve the community. Increasing occurrences of fires can damage valuable assets, and also have a crippling effect on the country’s  growth as investors shy away from the risks.

An important aspect of fire prevention is learning from a fire incident the cause and origin of the fire. The investigation results may then feed into cumulative experience to reduce the potential of the specific types of events in the future. This may happen through changes in code of practice (e.g., building codes, training, enforcement, etc.) and through improvement in existing safety standards.  In India, there is a need to develop the fire investigation capacity to improve the understanding of why and how fires occur. The results of fire investigation will be beneficial to the fire service, arson investigators, insurance claim assessors, as well as code and standards developers. It will also enable safety organizations to develop safety education campaigns to develop awareness amongst the public.

What is Forensic Investigation?

Forensic investigation is a science that analyses incident events to determine probable causes of failures. These failures may results from deliberate (e.g., arson, terrorism); accidental (e.g., hot work); natural (e.g., lightning); or malfunctioning of products that cause overheating and ignition of materials and components with the ensuing fire, resulting in loss of life or property damage. Once firefighters have extinguished the fire, forensic investigators take over the scene of the fire incident. The process of investigation mandates a rigorous procedures and very specialized expertise. An example of the procedures to be used is provided in NFPA 921: Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations; and the professional qualifications for a fire investigator may be found in NFPA 1033: Standard for Professional Qualifications for Fire Investigator.

The primary purpose of a fire investigation is to establish a time line of the events leading to the fire; review of the response of active and passive fire protection systems in place; fire mitigation; and documentation of injuries, fatalities, and property loss. Then, investigation of cause and origin of the fire then begins to determine the likely cause and conclude whether the incident was accidental, natural or deliberate. The scene is carefully examined to preserve evidence and search for items relevant to the investigation. Evidence collection and analysis is a crucial part of any forensic investigation. Interviewing witnesses who may provide vital leads to the origin and cause of the accident is also an important step. If the origin and cause analysis is inconclusive with the available evidence, forensic investigators may resort to complete evacuation and a mock reconstruction of the fire accident to look for any vital clues that they might have been missed before completing the investigation.

The role of a forensic investigator takes on more prominence in cases of arson which may arise from a variety of reasons like insurance fraud, terrorism, attempts to harm a person or property or to conceal a previous crime. Forensic investigation is also vital when there is loss of life, and significant property loss and damage.


Fire forensics and our safety system

A safety system consists of these four elements: (i) Plan; (ii) Do; (iii) Check; (iv) Act as depicted in Figure 1. Fire forensics is an important part of the “Check” element.


Where India stands

In India, there are several established standards for the safety of products used in consumer and industrial sectors which are written based on the fundamental principles of hazard based safety engineering to mitigate risk due to mechanical injury, electric shock and fire. Besides, there are also standards for performance of products in case of untoward incidents.

However, there is still a significant gap in resources available to conduct fire investigations and apply the lessons learned to improving fire safety. Currently, there are 28 colleges in India where fire safety is taught. This provides a core that may be expanded to include fire investigation curriculum and encourage students to take up a professional career in fire investigation.

The Road Ahead

There is a need to investigate fire incident scientifically and use the accumulated experience to improve codes (building, installation, maintenance), and standards. A national database of incident statistics and reports of investigations can help researchers assist in prioritization and also help safety organizations to develop more effective awareness campaigns. To promote academic interest in forensics and encourage students to build a career in forensics, there is a need to develop a curriculum, as well institute(s) for advancement of practice of fire forensics. This will help in creating a pool of competent and qualified investigators that may be used to improve fire safety in India. UL India is currently working with key organizations to develop seminars and workshops on fire investigation methodology. For more information contact……………………………………….[give contact].