Selecting Your Expert Witnesses for Fire and Arson Investigations

William Diershow
August 8, 2012 — 1,164 views  

In the past, any fire investigator who had conducted fire investigations for a period of time was presumed an “expert.”  Science was often a secondary consideration to the experience of the fire investigator.  This created a system that lead to high profile convictions that have since been proven with science to have been faulty (e.g., Georgetown Library Fire, Cameron Todd Willingham death penalty case, Texas *). 

The backlash of these cases are engineers and other professionals steeped in the sciences that have been touted as the new “experts” in fire origin and cause determination.  If you look at the CV’s of these scientists, you will find very little training and experience in fire sciences, especially fire investigation.  These professionals can provide insight into the mathematics and dynamics of fire, or the effects of fire. However, each fire is different and must be taken as a separate event unique unto itself.  Using strictly engineering principles, without solid origin and cause investigative practices, you cannot know what actually happened at a fire scene.

When selecting an expert to analyze or testify to fire origin and cause, it is best to use an experienced fire investigator who understands and utilizes engineering principles together with his/her training and experience in fire science.  Choose as your expert an investigator with a wide range of training and experience, including studies and training in the science of fire and fire investigations.  More persuasive for your case is the fire investigator who confers with an engineer (in the proper field), when the evidence warrants.  A qualified fire investigator will collaborate with the appropriate engineer to provide comprehensive determinations that establish the location of the fire and the proper cause including heat source (or lack thereof) and first fuel ignited.  This collaborative model utilizing both an engineer and fire investigator is both cost efficient and effective.

When determining the best expert witness for the testimony you need, you should first consult an experienced fire and arson investigator.  The qualified investigator should have many years of hands-on fire investigation experience and training. A bonus is one with firefighting experience, as well.  Firsthand experience seeing how fire reacts in the real world to weather, ventilation, fuel loads and extinguishment efforts at the scene of actual fires, coupled with the appropriate engineering report, just may be the extra edge that convinces a jury and wins your case.

* www.firelawblog.com/tag/Georgetown-library-fire , www.deathpenaltyinfo.org

William Diershow

Forensics LLC

Bill Diershow is a managing partner with Pioneer Forensics LLC, a full service forensics and investigations company that provides experts that are current or former Police, Department of Defense and Fire Department investigators and forensics experts. Pioneer Forensics also provides Federal and State law enforcement with evidence collection, forensic field chemistry products (many of which are proprietary) and training. He has also been a public fire investigator for over 23 years and works for the Greeley Fire Department in Greeley Colorado where he serves as the EMS Coordinator and Senior Fire Investigator.