Sep 11, 2017

Experts and investigators will look at every angle—and product—after a fire
By Jerry Plank

Billy Joel’s 1989 hit song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is apropos for the theme of this installment of “Product Safety Update.” How?

Once a fire has occurred in a structure, teams of experts descend on the charred remains to ascertain the cause, and every manufacturer of architectural, mechanical and electrical products installed or located in the building must now defend their turf and refute investigative claims that may wrongly place blame on them.

Take the recent catastrophic fire in the UK’s Grenfell Tower building where at least 80 people died. The difficult task of figuring out how and why the fire started has begun, as municipal, insurance company and independent investigators try to unpack the tragedy. While the lighting industry as a whole has an excellent safety record, the Grenfell Tower fire investigators will leave no stone unturned, and everyone who either had materials or products used in the building will be put under the microscope.

In the U.S., the National Fire Protection Association publishes ANSI standard NFPA 921, Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations, used by municipalities, insurance investigators and other interested parties. The process used to evaluate the probable cause of a fire in a structure is called the “scientific method.” The scientific method seeks to avoid political or personal opinions as the investigation typically includes 1) observation of the site, 2) definition of the problem(s), 3) collection of data from the site, 4) analysis of data collected, 5) development of hypothesis, 6) testing of hypothesis and 7) conclusions. The intention of using this process is to produce investigations based on empirical evidence.

Also worth noting is how investigators must approach the site of a fire. It is of paramount importance that no one in the investigative process damage potential evidence that would affect the conclusion of another investigator. Should an investigator do this it would be defined as “spoliation of evidence.” Should spoliation be suspected, the legal authorities could charge the entire loss to the investigator that damaged the evidence.

The types of spoliation are failure to preserve evidence, failure to properly collect evidence, inspection of evidence, intrusive inspection of evidence, destructive testing, negligent preservation and/or labeling, and abandonment of evidence. To avoid any claim of spoliation of evidence, investigators will coordinate the site visit such that all investigators have equal access to all potential evidence.

The evidence typically looked for in a fire is the origin of ignition, whether an accelerant was present at the point of ignition, charring patterns, potential fuel packages, such as mattresses and the like, or human remains, all of which will serve as clues as to what happened. It goes without saying that if a product is adjacent to the source of ignition, it may be called into question.

Daniel L. Churchwood, retired president, Kodiak Enterprises, Inc., told a story at an NFPA 921 training class of a house fire where all that remained of the structure was a charred foundation. Once all other investigators had completed their site study, Churchwood (who represented a computer manufacturer) received permission from the courts to sift through the remaining ashes to see what clues could be found.

The computer company Churchwood represented was being charged with the loss as the owner of the home disclosed that the computer was on at the time the fire started and it appeared as if charring was present where the computer was allegedly plugged in to power. Sifting through the ash, Churchwood’s firm found the remnants of several electrical space heaters that were not disclosed by the homeowner, and were in use when the fire started. The case against the computer manufacturer was eventually dropped based on this evidence.

The point of this story is that any fire investigation is a determination of the probable cause—short of a confession by an arsonist. The validity of product safety listings will be called into question if it is suspected that the product or material caused the loss.

In the Grenfell Tower, it is suspected that an appliance fire triggered the ignition of combustible materials, including the exterior panels of the structure, and caused the fire to spread quickly to most of the structure. Early reports indicate that the building panels may have had faulty or fraudulent testing for flammability. It will be interesting to see how the fire investigations pan out and what can be learned from this horrible tragedy.

In summary, product safety technologists and engineers spend a good deal of time determining whether or not a product meets the requirements contained in recognized national safety standards. Compliance to the applicable safety standard(s) is paramount to ensure that manufacturers have met the minimum level of safety to reduce risk of users receiving an electrical shock or having a building or persons sustain damage from a fire.

It is incumbent on all manufacturers to review their safety listings periodically to see if any potentially damaging areas exist in the testing or qualification of materials and components.

While the information provided here is not intended to offer legal advice, knowledge of the key elements of any fire investigation may be the difference between being charged with loss or proving that the product in question did not cause or contribute to the fire.


Jerry Plank

Jerry Plank, LC

Jerry Plank, LC, is the CEO/founder of Wilger Testing, an accredited third-party laboratory testing for product safety and... More info »