Scientific Method of Fire Investigation


Cases of fire investigation can be challenging to investigators. To ensure that a substantive and accurate report on origin and cause is established, a scientific method as an elaborate approach should be used. (Chandler 130). This is because the approach is based on principles that are proven as opposed to means founded on speculation and conjecture. It involves means that employ a systematic framework that allows gathering of information and knowledge to provide evidence to support the evaluation process.

This method of inquiry was not holistically discovered by fire experts but an application of already established scientific principles that guide the process of inquiry (Chandler 130). It is worth noting that the application may vary depending on the scenario presented.


According to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA’s) guide for explosions and fire investigations, the process entails the following steps: establishing the need for investigation, defining the problem, data collection, analysis of data gathered, and formulation of hypothesis, testing of the hypotheses, and finally selecting the hypothesis that best suits the scenario under investigation (Petherick 357). These steps are discussed in detail to demonstrate how each one of them is conducted to derive conclusions as to which hypothesis best explains the underlying cause and origin of fire. The chart below represents the steps followed during fire investigation via scientific method. The flow chart is a logical eventful outline that showcases the innate logical procedures embedded in the process (Petherick 357).

NFPA’s guide for explosions and fire investigations
Figure: NFPA’s guide for explosions and fire investigations

Step 1: Need Identification and problem definition

In simpler terms, need identification refers to the process of identification of the problem. During this process, parties recognize that the problem is that there has been a fire outbreak or explosion which necessitates the investigation problem. The need would be to investigate the area of origin and the primary cause or causes that are highly likely to have contributed to the explosion. The investigator thus obtains an investigative obligation and authority to kick starts the process.

Using the findings of the study, the investigator may recommend various future programs aimed at combating preventing incidents (Petherick 358). Such recommendations may include education programs to prevent or control future incidents as well as routine checks. For an investigator to undertake this task, it calls for either express or legal authority to warrant a recognizable procedure. If the area to be investigated does not fall under the jurisdiction of the investigator, it may deny him or her legal duty to engage in such investigation.

Step 2: Data Collection

This step follows after the identification of the problem to be investigated. The investigator would then endeavor to conduct data collection procedure aimed at obtaining candid information that would be useful in supporting his hypothetical premises. The investigator must utilize every aspect that relates to the incident of fire and as such, they are recorded in one way or another. There are many ways through which data may be collected. The methods used may be as many as there are factors deemed important in the process of investigation. These methods include recording of interviews and photographing. It should be noted that any material data that can or may be beneficial to aid in decision making as to the cause of fire should be neatly be unified to make a meaningful inference (Petherick 357). At this stage, the materials collected are purely reliant on experiments, observations, or experiences and are referred to as empirical data. Upon satisfactory collection of data, the investigator proceeds with the analysis of the data gathered at this investigative phase.

Step 3: Analysis of Data

The investigator must logically and reasonably conduct data analysis procedures. Data that stands to be analyzed is that obtained from experiments or observations. The investigator must possess relevant and adequate expertise needed for this exercise. Knowledge and experiences arising directly from the area of specialization render the phase more easy and effective. For example, an investigator with military experience may conduct an effective explosive cause of fire while one with bias in electricity will do well in electric related causes. Interviews are significant in explaining the phenomenon as it is from the original setting. Some of technical analysis that may be undertaken may include arc analysis, and heat and flame vector analysis (International Association of Arson Inves 233). Thematic analysis to formulate theory and hypothesis will be facilitated through interviews reports. Analyzed data allows the investigator to formulate hypothesis.

Step 4: Development of Hypothesis as to the origin and cause of fire

This refers to the primary assumption made while relying on the empirical data gathered by an investigator or researcher. The investigator may develop numerous hypotheses that try to explain the origin and cause of the fire and the number of hypotheses may be determined by how wide data variables are present in the case say electric faults, accidental fires, and licking gas cylinders etc. in identifying the origin, sequential pattern analysis is used in which patterns of occurrence are established to aid in creating an explanation based on the pattern (International Association of Arson Inves 229). The following are examples of hypotheses that may be formulated. The process of formulation is usually inductive in nature (Chandler 132).

  • Fire accident was caused by an electric fault due to poorly insulated and hanging cables at the mains switch board.
  • Fire explosion was caused by licking gas cylinders in the control laboratory control room.

Step 5: Hypothesis Testing

The preceding stage is an initial stage that must not be left to overturn the final decision as to which cause and origin best explain the facts especially in cases where multiple factors are present. To ensure a refined conclusion, the set hypotheses must be subjected to a reasoned deduction taking into account all material facts known to the investigative process. Note that to test the hypothesis, deductive reasoning is used as opposed to inductive reasoning used in development of hypothesis. According to Chandler (2009), all requirements of a valid hypothesis must be met otherwise; the hypothesis is rendered a mere theory that cannot be relied upon to explain the phenomenon (132).

Step 6: Selection of final Hypothesis

This is the most critical stage phase since it provides the investigation process with an opportunity to establish an explanation that would exclusively depict the outcome. The hypothesis chosen must be able to withstand all the challenges of deductive reasoning subjected to it as a means of qualifying as the true cause of the problem. In case no hypothesis stands the test, the investigator may be forced to reinvestigate the cause by conducting further interviews and experiments to design a new hypothesis that would be used to reasonably make a conclusion that is generally substantive to warrant a final decision (Chandler 132) and (Petherick 357).

After the selection is successfully conducted, the investigator draws his or her final conclusions based on the tested hypothesis. The conclusion is simply a narration of fire origin and causes as demonstrated by the proven hypothesis. Recommendations are then made to cushion against future related incidents. An example of a recommendation could be a blow.

  • Assuming that the cause was electric fault arising from poor or lack of insulation, the investigator may recommend regular or routine snap-checks should be conducted to establish proper shape of all insulations within the premise.
  • Where numerous injuries were recorded and based on interviews, recommendations for fire drills and trainings may be considered by the investigator to equip the users of the premise with skills of fighting and evacuating fire broken premises.


The process of fire investigation is one challenging and technical due to many factors. Some of the factors that render the task daunting include varied and too much expectations from the parties to the investigation who may sometimes influence or impair on the process of investigation. From the discussion, it is clear that the process is systematic following a framework established based on scientific principles therefore, failure to offer a logical approach may result in deviation from (“what would have been) the results.

However, it is worth noting that there are instances where no data or material evidences may be available to warrant a plausible explanation as to what caused the fire. This case may not be admitted by many people since injuries and losses experienced have far reaching reason to find an explanation. Other factors that may render this process ineffective may include lack of material resources within the jurisdiction to facilitate an in-depth investigation.

In ensuring that the results are dependable and free from inferential weaknesses, organizations or persons seeking an investigation of fire should provide due resources necessary to allow adequate time to arrive at substantive conclusions.

Works Cited

Chandler, Russell. K. Fire Investigation. New York: Cengage Learning, 2009. Print.

International Association of Arson Inves. Fire Investigator: Principles and Practice to NFPA 921 and 1033. London: Jones & Bartlett Publishers, 2010. Print.

Petherick, Wayne. Serial Crime: Theoretical and Practical Issues in Behavioral Profiling. New York: Academic Press, 2009. Print.

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