Fire investigation – to assist in the reduction of fire fatalities?
Strathclyde Fire and Rescue's Iain Gavin M.I.Fire.E. BSc(Hons) reports on his PhD research project into fire fatalities within Scottish dwellings:
Are the techniques and practices available to fire investigators being used or adopted to their full potential? The application of fire investigation (FI) throughout the country is currently receiving attention from the IFE membership and like-minded fire professionals. The current debates and discussions reflect a profession which is somewhat disjointed, lacking accreditation and requires a positive influence, the latter being suggested by the IFE with possible examinations or a registration scheme for fire investigators.
Fire Fatalities Research
Having embarked on a PhD research project into fire fatalities within Scottish dwellings the involvement of fire investigation is critical to the recorded outcomes of the fire in relation to the cause of fire, the fire behaviour and ultimately for what reason did the person succumb to the effects. The ultimate aim of all fire professionals is to reduce the instances of fire and the disastrous outcomes they cause, such as loss of life, loss of buildings, loss of employment etc. Proactive intervention programmes and initiatives are paramount to achieving these reductions. There are various tools are at our disposal to assist including appropriate building standards, fire engineered solutions, community awareness initiatives and ultimately, adequate investigative resources when it all fails. Any advancement in technology, practices or intervention initiatives is derived from a full understanding of past failures; critically within the scope of a fire incident the compiled fire investigation reports can be used by numerous departments and agencies to influence meaningful changes.
The research being undertaken is looking primarily at deaths within dwelling fires but the outcomes from analysis could potentially influence any future fire investigative reports. The outcomes identified to date would endorse the previous discussions, from the IFE Special Interest Group (SIG); in relation to credibility of investigator reports, different interpretation or application of procedures, lack of uniformity in communication protocols between agencies and although FI improvements are evident it still remains fragmented.
The current research analysed specifically fire fatalities throughout Scotland from a three-year period: 2006-2008. The research gathered data and information directly from the eight Scottish fire and rescue services together with national publications from the Scottish government. The research questionnaire requested data and information on 20 topics relating to: the incident, the fire, the fire fatality, smoke detection and whether or not the person was alone at the time of the fire. There was a common willingness of each authority to assist in the project and their contribution was commendable. The data and information provided did not however have the same collective qualities or quantity which identified a differential between fire services of the information they collect, collate or store in relation to fire fatality incidents.
A Summarised Account of the Data Researched
The researched period resulted in 139 accidental fire fatalities throughout Scotland. Although a standardised fire fatality interim investigation report is in use throughout Scotland, the analysed fatality reports highlighted an un-collaborated and un-verified submission of information. The non-uniformed submission of Scottish Fire fatality data was evident in a number of criterions:
• Incomplete incident addresses and post codes
• The gender of fire fatality was not recorded in the case of 19 fire deaths
• For 42 fire fatalities the location (room) of the deceased was not recorded
• Only two services made reference to the verified cause of death
• The confirmation of alcohol/drug levels in blood not uniformly recorded
• Only one service records the locations of multiple smoke detectors
• Only 50 per cent of fire services record if other occupants were in the premises at the time of the fire
• Only two fire services recorded if the premises were owner/occupier or rented accommodation.
There is however a number of corresponding reported details relating to fire fatality incidents, from which national statistics and publications are drawn. There will no doubt be additional documentation available which can identify the missing data but this adds to the theory of incomplete or unverified FI reporting procedures. The collection of the various available data streams is not uniform or standardised throughout Scotland.
With the provision and accuracy of fire fatality data being questionable the statistical conclusions drawn or presented must also be questionable at this time. The accuracy and verification of fire investigation reports and the additional sources of information pertaining to the investigation or fatality has to be justifiably improved.
With Scotland embarking on a single Fire Service it is potentially the appropriate time to standardise FI reporting and information collection to a single authority. Scotland currently has the Scottish Fatality Investigation Unit, SFIU, which would certainly be a consideration for centralised data collection and analysis of fire deaths throughout the country.
Areas of potential consideration and part of my future research include:
1. The access to fire fatality fire investigation reports to a wider audience of researchers and professionals, comparable with air, marine and rail investigation reports
2. Each fire fatality report undergoing specific risk analysis modelling to identify outcomes with a verification and justification of data
3. A standardised format for the collection, collation and storage of fire fatality investigation data from the different agencies and authorities involved. All appropriate information relating to the cause of fire and fire death are available at a single source
4. The competencies of fire investigation and investigators, justification of it remaining with the fire service or moved to an independent investigation branch. Justifying the competence and expertise of the investigators and completed reports.
Recent IFE articles and discussions relating to the competencies and qualifications of fire investigators must surely augment this aim. Although FI course are available throughout the county from training establishments, universities and some fire and rescue services having also developed FI training, a recognised standard and accreditation body has still to be agreed.
This step would be an important breakthrough in achieving uniformity with a nationally recognised standard of excellence or expertise. The professionalism of FI throughout the country still needs to be debated with a positive aim of achieving appropriate outcomes. The IFE special interest group is certainly one avenue to support this challenge and the integration of a SIG for FI within the Scottish Branch could also provide added assistance to this objective.
This article was intended to engage with the current debate and discussion towards the future of FI through the country, by providing some current research findings which highlight that the deficiencies within England and Wales are no different to Scotland. Although we work to different legislative requirements and procedures we are united in the professional standing that we all want to make our buildings safer from fire and mitigate the serious outcomes in human and material loss we endure if a fire does occur.
For far too long now the issue of FI has been discussed on forums and blogs or insular within the public sector, the private sector or professional institutes, each individual trying to progress on their own merits. The solution however requires a collective effort. I would commend the IFE SIG for bringing this issue to the fore and hopefully the united approach can be arranged.
My research is one outcome; there are a number of like-minded people within our profession who agree that FI requires regaining or establishing its professional status within the fire safety industry. With willingness for a collective approach it can be achieved.
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