OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) – Investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have their completed work at the scene of a fatal warehouse fire that broke out during a dance party, killing 36 people. ATF spokeswoman Alexandria Corneiro said Sunday the agency’s team has left the site but that the scene in Oakland…
UPDATED MARCH 31, 2015, 6:45 AM
Although the situation has improved dramatically since 2000, fire investigation is a forensic science discipline that still lags far behind the rest of forensic science. This is largely because the people who become fire investigators generally lack the fundamental scientific education necessary to understand fire. We recruit our fire investigators from the ranks of police officers and firefighters, and while these are honorable professions, they require no scientific background.
We need higher salaries to attract more qualified people. Courts need to be more skeptical about poorly educated investigators.
Every day, we ask fire investigators to make sophisticated decisions about chemistry, heat transfer, fluid dynamics and electricity. We can provide training, but training is of little help when the person being trained does not have even a basic understanding of the underlying science. Voluntary certification programs exist, but there is no evidence that certified fire investigators are any more reliable than non-certified investigators.
Fire is a chemical reaction resulting in the release of energy in varying intensities, yet many certified fire investigators with decades of experience are unable to name the basic units of energy or power.
Finding the origin of a fire is supposed to be a fire investigator’s core competency. Determining where a fire started, however, is a complicated task, and one that has a high error rate, unless the fire is extinguished in its earliest stages. The profession is just beginning to understand the effects that ventilation, or the lack thereof, can have on the fire damage. The problem becomes worse when the fanciful arson determinations of unqualified individuals are presented to courts.
Prosecutors, judges and juries have no way of knowing just how weak some of the fire science is, and the problem is exacerbated by the way that trials proceed. The prosecutor leads off with motive and character assassination. By the time the jury hears the bad science, they already hate the defendant and just don’t care that the allegedly scientific determination of origin and cause is invalid. That is exactly what happened in the trial of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed for setting a fire that killed his three daughters based on confident, but wholly inaccurate testimony by fire investigators. None of the so-called arson indicators relied upon had any validity.
The Willingham case owes its high profile to death penalty activists, but it is by no means the only miscarriage of justice that resulted from accidental fires being erroneously classified as intentional. Citizens who have been wrongly prosecuted for arson number in the dozens, if not in the hundreds.
To remedy this situation we need a more highly educated applicant pool, which means we need to be willing to pay higher salaries to induce more qualified people to join the field. And courts need to be more skeptical about the ability of poorly educated investigators to correctly determine the origin and cause of the fire. When the cause of the fire is not obvious, courts should be willing to entertain reliability challenges, and to provide funds for defendants to retain independent experts.