“Oh!… er… Electrical”
“Oh!… er… electrical.” This statement, when given at the scene of a fire just brought under control, often alternates with its companion, “Oh!… er… oil burner.” Given in a characteristically nonchalant, sometimes flippant manner, these responses usually follow the question, “Hey, Chief, how’d it start?”
The questioner in this one act play can wear many costumes: the patrolman assigned to the sector, the insurance investigator, a neighbor, or sometimes a tired fire investigation official who chooses not to be bored with another “routine” residential fire where he needs to “fill in the blank” on his report.
Many times the incident commander would rather use those two stock cause statements rather than saying, “I just don’t know yet” or “Undetermined.”
In a recent east coast fire incident that involved a fatality, a fire official was embarrassed when he was forced to reverse his cause determination from electrical to undetermined. The medical examiner’s report showed the cause of death to be multiple stab wounds.
The fire scene, in this case, contained enough physical and circumstantial evidence to at least indicate that the cause of the fire could not be readily determined. It seems that there is just too much pressure lately to fill in the blank on fire reports.
When I was on the department, an order came down saying that our fire reports had to be complete, and that our percentages of cause determinations must be brought up to the national average. At that time, the national average had a cause determination percentage double that of the City of New York.
Why the rush to have a fully completed fire report form?
We must reinforce our commitment to thoroughly investigate an incident before determining its cause—especially when realizing the multiplier that surrounds our findings. Litigation and economic factors directly related to our decisions on fire cause can easily run into millions of dollars, not to mention unseen disturbed, affected, and wrecked lives.
National experts on fire investigations have given us many guidelines (several excellent ones have appeared within the pages of FIRE ENGINEERING).
The rule of thumb seems to be: Do not venture an opinion until you can determine the origin, then the how, and finally the what or cause of the fire. And never do any of this in an incident following a fatality until after a medical examiner’s report.
Perhaps the basic guideline lies in the remark made to me by a nationally recognized fire investigator: “Instead of teaching cause and origin seminars, they should be teaching origin then cause.”