Forensic Fire Investigations Need More Scientific Input, AAAS Report Finds

Determining if a fire is accidental or due to arson is a process often plagued by poorly understood science, subjective judgments on the part of investigators and inadequately trained personnel, according to a new AAAS report on the quality of fire investigation in the United States.

The report, the first of two forensic science assessments organized by the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program, examines current practice in fire investigation, identifies gaps in scientific knowledge and makes recommendations for further research. It is particularly timely given the deadly fire that engulfed West London’s residential housing apartment building – the Grenfell Tower – in the early morning hours of June 14, taking at least 80 lives.

The AAAS report was not intended to reach a conclusion regarding the acceptability of a fire scene investigation as evidence in a court of law. It does call for rigorous scientific research to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of fire investigation. And it recommends that investigator-initiated research be “from a broader range of disciplines and institutions than have traditionally been engaged in the study or work of the forensic sciences.” It cites the value of disciplines such as physics, psychology, statistics and engineering and expresses the hope that a culture of science will become more engrained among forensic practitioners.