Arc Mapping: New Science or New Myth?

There has been a lot of debate in fire investigation industry recently regarding Arc Mapping.  NAFI’s mission is to increase the knowledge and improve the skills of persons engaged in the investigation and analysis of fires, explosions and arsons, or the litigation that ensues from such investigations. The opinions expressed in this paper do not necessarily reflect the opinion and beliefs of NAFI. Over the next three weeks, we will be sharing different views on Arc Mapping with our members and the industry – it is up to you to draw your own conclusions.

Week 1 – Arc Mapping: New Science or New Myth?
Week 2 – Arc Mapping as a Tool for Fire Investigations

Vytenis Babrauskas
Fire Science and Technology Inc., San Diego, CA
Dept. of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, CA

ABSTRACT
Arc mapping was first introduced in the 2001 edition of NFPA 921 and was subsequently expanded so that in the recent editions it constitutes one of the four main methods for determining the origin of a fire. Careful consideration of engineering principles and large-scale experimental studies on the subject indicates that the relevance and prominence of arc mapping as a leading indicator of fire origin is greatly overstated. The technique is valid and applicable only in some very limited scenarios. Yet it has seen very extensive use in recent years by investigators preparing fire reports. In many cases, such attempted use of arc mapping is based on incorrect and invalid hypotheses, which are often implicitly assumed to be true instead of being explicitly stated. The following are myths: (i) An abundance of arc beads at a given locale means that fire originated in that area, while a paucity of arc beads indicates that it did not. (ii) When multiple arcs are present on a circuit, the direction of arcing will necessarily proceed upstream towards the power source. (iii) If an appliance is the victim of a fire, internal arcing will be primarily near the exterior of the unit, while arcing deep inside indicates a fire origin at that place. NFPA is urged to revise NFPA 921 to eliminate arc mapping as one of the four main methods for establishing fire origin, and to subsume it under the more general category of “fire patterns.” In addition, it is important that NFPA 921 reduce the implied general utility of the method and provide more explicit information on its interpretation and its limitations and on the circumstances under which it may be a valid method for assisting in the determination of the fire origin.

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Fire Investigator Qualifications Standard Approved for OSAC Registry

NAFI has endorsed National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 921 Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations since the first edition was released in 1992. NFPA 921 has been a key source of technical information concerning the investigation of Fires and Explosions.  NAFI has also utilized and supported NFPA 1033 Professional Qualifications for Fire Investigators as this document provides guidance concerning the knowledge and competencies that a Fire and Explosion Investigator must have to effectively complete and investigation. Having these two documents selected and approved to be included in the Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC) for Forensic Science registry which serves as a trusted repository of high-quality, science-based standards and guidelines for forensic practice is testimony that these documents are truly authoritative. Both of these documents have been key elements in the development and continuation of the NAFI Certified Fire and Explosion Investigator (CFEI) and Certified Vehicle Fire and Explosion Investigator (CVFI) programs. – Ron Hopkins, President, NAFI

The Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC) for Forensic Science has approved the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard for Professional Qualifications for Fire Investigator for inclusion on the OSAC Registry, which serves as a trusted repository of high-quality, science-based standards and guidelines for forensic practice. This is the first personnel qualification standard and the second NFPA document to be included on the OSAC Registry.

OSAC, which is administered by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), is working to strengthen forensic science by facilitating the development of discipline-specific, science-based standards and guidelines for a broad array of forensic disciplines. To be posted to the OSAC Registry, standards and guidelines must have been developed using a consensus-based process and must pass a review of technical merit by forensic practitioners, academic researchers, statisticians and measurement scientists. Continue Reading…

Source: NIST.gov


Minnesota town burns on September 1, 1894

The town of Hinckley, Minnesota, is destroyed by a forest fire on this day in 1894. A total of 440 people died in the area.

The upper Midwest was particularly vulnerable to devastating fires at the end of the 19th century as European settlers cleared the land for agriculture and timber and new railroad lines were built through heavily wooded areas. Hinckley was a new lumber and rail town built along the Grindstone River in Minnesota near the Wisconsin border. The town’s settlers felled trees for lumber using slash cutting techniques that left behind large amounts of wood debris—excellent fire fuel. Further, they set up lumber yards very close to the rail lines. This proved a dangerous combination when sparks from trains set the wood debris ablaze.

In the summer of 1894, drought conditions in the Upper Midwest made a deadly fire even more likely. On the afternoon of September 1, fires near two rail lines south of Hinckley broke out and spread north. As the raging fire reached the town’s train depot, 350 of the townspeople got on a train to escape. The train had to pass right through flames, but reached safety in West Superior, Wisconsin.

Other Hinckley residents sought refuge in the swamps near town, but many in this group were killed, some from drowning. About 100 other residents fled to a gravel pit fill with water; most managed to survive. A train that was entering Hinckley from the north reversed direction to avoid the blaze, but still caught fire. The only survivors were those who managed to jump from the train into a lake.

In all, 300,000 acres of town and forest burned in the fire, causing about $25 million in damages. In Hinckley, 228 people died. More than 200 others in the surrounding areas also perished, including 23 Ojibwa natives.

Source: History.com
Image: Wikipedia.org


Constantinople fire, 1870

A huge section of the city of Constantinople, Turkey, is set ablaze on June 5 in 1870. When the smoke finally cleared, 3,000 homes were destroyed and 900 people were dead.

The fire began at a home in the Armenian section of the Valide Tchesme district. A young girl was carrying a hot piece of charcoal to her family’s kitchen in an iron pan when she tripped, sending the charcoal out the window and onto the roof of an adjacent home. The fire quickly spread down Feridje Street, one of Constantinople’s main thoroughfares.

The Christian area of the city was quickly engulfed. There was a high degree of cooperation among the various ethnic groups who called the city home, but even this was no match for the high winds that drove the rapidly spreading fire. An entire square mile of the city near the Bosporus Strait was devastated. Only stone structures, mostly churches and hospitals, survived the conflagration.

In 1887, Edmondo de Amicis published perhaps the best account of this disaster in a book called Constantinople.

Source: History.com


The Anatomy of a Marine Fire Investigation

Christopher J. Reed, CFEI, MIFireE, MSc.Eng (Fire), P.Eng,
Sereca Fire Consulting Ltd., British Columbia, Canada

Presented at International Symposium on Fire Investigation, 2014

ABSTRACT
Fires occurring in marine environments present the fire investigator with unique challenges. The nature of the marine environment presents an immediate safety hazard and introduces complications in suppression, scene documentation, and evidence contamination. As the scene can sink or become submerged, fire patterns are obscured and evidence can be lost, contaminated, or otherwise dispersed. Because the fire may occur in remote areas, within boathouses or in close proximity to other boats, additional fuel, the environment, and suppression tactics can further limit the investigator’s ability to identify causation factors.

Overall, the general site conditions, construction materials, and the specific electrical and mechanical systems leaves the investigator wading through collapsed structures and sunken vessels, endless piles of burned fiberglass, congealed plastics and melted aluminum, and a disarray of electrical, fuel, and mechanical systems all potentially compromised further by salt water and oxidation not related to the fire. The interpretation of fire patterns is further complicated by specific ventilation effects, fuel loads in different areas of the vessel, and the unusual progression of the fire as it is obstructed or contained by bulkheads in the cabins and hull. The combination of lightweight materials and the influence of venting from open hatches, port lights, or passageways can create fire patterns that could mislead the investigator from the true origin and cause.

This paper examines the process of conducting a marine fire investigation from securing sunken vessels to evaluating common ignition scenarios in vessels and land based associated facilities. Investigation methodologies outlined in NFPA 921 (2014) are reviewed and common failure modes of the various systems are categorized with characteristic fire damage to assist in cause determination.

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The most deadly lightning strike in history?

On June 26 in 1807, lightning hits a gunpowder factory in the small European country of Luxembourg, killing more than 300 people. Lightning kills approximately 73 people every year in the United States alone, but victims are almost always killed one at a time. The Luxembourg disaster may have been the most deadly lightning strike in history.

The earth experiences 8 to 9 million lightning strikes every single day. In a typical year, the United States will see about 70,000 thunderstorms somewhere in its territory. This produces approximately 20 million lightning strikes annually. A bolt of lightning can reach 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit in instant heat. There are 100 million volts in an average lightning bolt, which can be as much as five miles long.

In 1807, Luxembourg was occupied by Napoleon’s army. The French dictator used the country to stockpile weapons and ammunition. Many underground bunkers were built for this purpose.  In the southern Luxembourg city of Kirchberg, a fortress built in 1732 was used as an armory.

When lightning struck the fortress on June 26, the ammunition housed within ignited on contact, causing a massive explosion. Two entire blocks were completely razed by the blast, which caused several other fires to rage nearby.  The London Times later reported, “This city has been plunged into the greatest consternation and distress.”

Source: History.com


The 1875 Liberties Whiskey Fire

One of the most destructive fires in the history of the city occurred on 18 June 1875, when a disastrous fire in the Liberties area of the city saw burning whiskey flow through the streets of the area like lava. A malt house and a bonded warehouse went up in flames, leaving the burning liquid to flow down Ardee Street and Mill Street. The fire began just after 8pm, and contemporary news reports give an idea of just how much burning booze was involved, with the Illustrated London News reporting:

The fire was at Reid’s malt-house and Malone’s bonded warehouse, in the Liberties. The former had above £2000 worth of malt in it, and the latter, which immediately adjoins it, had 1800 puncheons of whisky, the property of various distillers, and worth £54,000.

Read more about The 1875 Liberties Whiskey Fire


Meet a NAFI member: Richard Meier

Meet a NAFI member: Richard Meier

Everyone at the National Association of Fire Investigators works hard to make sure our members reach their goals by supporting them with a variety of NFPA based trainings, certifications, and resources. When our members have the relevant education and resources that meet their needs, we’ve succeeded! We are proud of our team and are happy to share more about them with you.

Rich Meier is a Senior Staff Expert, Fire and Explosion Analyst, Lead Investigator with John A. Kennedy & Associates, Inc. He has a BS in Mechanical Engineering Technology from the University of Akron that he earned while working full time, serving in the US Army Reserves and being called to active duty.

Rich lived in Illinois, Ohio and Texas as a child, and ended up in Ohio.  He moved to Florida in 2000 because he had had enough of snow, and loves boating and diving.

How did you get started working in fire investigation?
I first met Pat Kennedy while dating his daughter Christine, now my wife.  When he found out I was both a mechanical engineer and an avid boater, he asked me to consult on a couple of marine cases, one explosion and one fire on an antique yacht.  From there I was hooked.  I studied fire investigation for about 2 years before joining Kennedy and Associates full time.  It is the most interesting thing I’ve ever done and now I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Why is NAFI an important organization for fire investigation?
I feel that NAFI puts a lot of emphasis on the basics.  We stress the scientific method because it’s a reliable roadmap to follow when you’re doing your investigation.  Yes, we also teach more complex topics, but we try to make sure you have the fundamentals in place first.  That includes all the requirements of NFPA 1033, in addition to other useful skills.

What is your favorite part of being involved with NAFI?
Meeting and networking with the members.  Through NAFI I know people on almost every continent.  I hear some interesting stories and learn a lot.  After teaching a class someone will come up and say “You know…” or “What about…?”  I’ll go find out and hopefully my class is that much better the next time I teach it.

What advice do you have for fire investigators just starting out?Learn everything you can and never stop asking questions.  Listen to other fire investigators when you’re at a fire scene, but don’t take anything as gospel.  Some really know what they’re doing and some don’t.  When you think you know everything, it’s time to look for another career.

What is a quote you live by?
I have a lot of favorites, so I’m not sure that I can narrow it down to just one.  Here’s two…

“Your present circumstances don’t determine where you can go; they merely determine where you start.” – Nido Qubein

“Do something every day that scares you.” – Eleanor Roosevelt


Jilin Baoyuanfeng poultry plant fire

On 3 June 2013, a fire at the Jilin Baoyuanfeng (吉林宝源丰) poultry processing plant in Mishazi (米沙子镇), a town about 35 km (22 mi) from Changchun, in Jilin province, People’s Republic of China, killed at least 120 people. More than 60 others were hospitalised with injuries.

Read more about Jilin Baoyuanfeng poultry plant fire.


Wrongful Arson Conviction: Case Review and Discussion

Robert J. Trenkle, CFI, CFEI

Presented at International Symposium on Fire Investigation, 2014

ABSTRACT
State of Michigan vs. Frederick Mardlin

On Monday, November 13, 2006 at 1410 hours (2:10 p.m.) a fire occurred at an owner occupied single family dwelling at 550 W. Mill Street, Capac, Michigan. The homeowner, Frederick Mardlin, lived there with his family and another family which was homeless and allowed to move in with the Mardlin’s. Prior to the fire, only Frederick Mardlin was home. He left the house to go to his brother’s house, who lived nearby. The fire was discovered by neighbors approximately 15-20 minutes after his departure. The fire was investigated by the local fire department, State Fire Marshal and a private investigator for the insurance company.

Numerous points made in the study by Paul Bieber, director, Arson Research Project, paralleled the Mardlin case, including mis-identifying the area of origin of the fire. Ignitable liquids were attributed to accelerating the fire although none were identified by laboratory analysis. Cognitive bias was apparent in their findings or they were the result of lacking knowledge in fire behavior, or both. Mr. Mardlin was convicted of Arson: Burning of a Dwelling House and Insurance Fraud. He was sentenced to ten years in prison. He served four years and was paroled. He was denied a new trial at the Appellate Court level and eventually the guilty verdict was vacated by the higher court. Hundreds of hours were spent by the appeals attorney, investigators and electrical engineer before the favorable outcome was reached. The discussion will explain the exhaustive efforts necessary to right the horrible wrong suffered by Mr. Mardlin.

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