The Next Paradigm in
In 1992, the fire investigation community was introduced to NFPA 921. After 23 years of discussion, pros and cons, the result is a field of fire investigators closely following this guide in determining the cause and origin of a fire. The reason, not that all investigators agree with all aspects of NFPA 921, but because the courts, both State and Federal, have and will continue to accept NFPA 921 as the generally accepted standard in the fire investigations community, if not the “Bible of Forensic Arson Science” (Babick v Berghuis 620 F.3d 571, 574–75 [6th Cir. 2010]).
When will be the next paradigm shift in fire investigations? I believe its happening now. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences published their report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward. This report was over 300 pages and contained an overview of multiple problems relating to forensic sciences and the law in both criminal and civil cases. Although this report was not specific to forensic fire investigations, it did address it. This report called for a movement towards mandatory universal accreditation of all public and private organizations providing fire investigative services for “criminal, civil, regulatory, or administrative proceedings.”
The report specifically states, “Laboratory accreditation and individual certification of forensic science practitioners should be mandatory.” With this report planting the seed, what is the next step? In 2013, the Federal Government established a “National Commission on Forensic Science as part of a new initiative to strengthen and enhance the practice of forensic science.” In November 2014, a Subcommittee prepared and posted, for public comment, a draft recommendation for mandatory universal accreditation of Forensic Science Service Providers. This recommendation failed to receive the requisite votes, but it is clear that this committee is in favor of individual certification.
Will the Commission consider a fire investigator a “Forensic Science Service Provider?” They define a Forensic Science Service Provider as a person or entity that (1) applies scientific practices to recognizing, collecting, analyzing or interpreting physical evidence; and (2) issues test results, provides reports, or provides interpretations, conclusions, or opinions through testimony with respect to such evidence. Based upon their definition, I don’t think any of us will argue that a fire investigator will be included in this initiative.
We can all read the writing on the wall, but what is our next step as fire investigators? We all know the California Courts, under the Frye standard, don’t require us to be certified to offer an expert opinion as to the origin and cause of a fire, but that could change with one decision of the court. We are not currently required by the U.S. Department of Justice to be certified to provide fire investigative services for “criminal, civil, regulatory, or administrative proceedings,” but that could change with one recommendation from the National Commission on Forensic Science.
As I see it, we have two options. We can wait for it to happen, complain when it does, and then play catch up, much as we did as an industry when NFPA 921 was introduced. OR, we can embrace the change, recognize that the intent is to make us better individually and collectively as an industry, and lead the forensic certification charge. How do I recommend we accomplish this challenge? Become a Certified Fire Investigator!