Meet a NAFI member: Brian Henry

Meet a NAFI member: Brian Henry

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.

Brian Henry is a Shareholder in the Sarasota, Florida office of Smith, Rolfes & Skavdahl Company, LPA.  Brian is nationally-recognized for his knowledge and experience on expert preclusion issues, having written and lectured extensively on the subject and having handled more than 100 Daubert-type challenges in cases throughout the country. Brian has served as an expert witness on the standard of care for attorneys handling fire science cases, and he is a frequent lecturer on fire science, expert preclusion, and product liability issues at conferences throughout the country.

Brian and his wife Elizabeth have been married for 20 years and have two children, Sydney, 11, and Cooper, 9. They relocated to Lakewood Ranch, Florida, from Connecticut five years ago. Coincidentally, they thank Pat Kennedy with NAFI for their family’s relocation to Florida, as Pat invited Brian to speak at the NAFI Annual Conference in Sarasota several years in a row, and they fell in love with the area during those visits.

Brian will be speaking at ISFI 2016, you can get a preview of his presentation here.

How did you get started working with fire investigation/fire investigators?

I worked for a great attorney who handled fire cases for a major insurance carrier. The carrier was a large client of ours and it had its national fire science laboratory 20 minutes from the office. I had full access to all kinds of training and all of their experts, for free. I was fortunate to be able to attend all of their internal training sessions, ultimately obtaining over 1000 hours of fire investigation education through that client. I had full access to everything – an opportunity that most other attorneys would never have.

In my view, fire science litigation is a much more complex and complicated field of law than most insurance-related litigation.  There is a level of scientific understanding that is required far beyond what is needed in “typical” cases.  Many lawyers will tell you they have “handled” fire cases, but what they really have done is “parrot” what their expert witnesses have told them to say.  When I began in the field, I was very uncomfortable with that – with not knowing whether my expert really knew what he or she was talking about.  With the background I have in the field, I can have a substantive conversation with them about the evidence in the case. It becomes a true litigation partnership, which I think is essential.

I enjoy fire litigation because it’s more of a mystery or a puzzle than a regular case. My work starts from the moment of the claim — I get to be involved in solving the mystery from the outset.  Many times I get calls while a fire is still burning, giving me the opportunity to be part of the initial fire scene investigation.

My involvement with NAFI goes back more than a decade.  In the early 2000’s, I began attending NFPA 921 meetings, and I met Pat Kennedy at one of those meetings.  From there, I joined NAFI and, ever since then, I have taught at NAFI’s Annual Conference, and I have taught a few times at ISFI.  Several years ago, NAFI selected me as its General Counsel, and I am very proud to serve the organization in that fashion.

Why is NAFI an important organization for fire investigation?

I think the importance of NAFI is demonstrated through the sheer amount of educational opportunities offered to members and the general public.  There are numerous conferences throughout the year, and the International Symposium on Fire Investigations is offered every other year.  Any time you offer those kinds of high-quality forums to the public, that’s a good thing.  I work with many, many fire investigators – some good, and some not so good.  But the ones that a particularly dangerous are the ones who simply ignore the educational opportunities out there, and fail to keep up with the current state of fire science.  Those folks don’t fare too well in depositions or at trial with me questioning them.  NAFI provides crucial opportunities for people to develop their knowledge base in this very important field.

What is your favorite part of being involved with NAFI?

I really enjoy being part of an organization that is devoted to developing the quality of fire investigations.  Both the programs offered throughout the year and the biennial Symposium really provide opportunities for high-level discussions on fire science issues.  I am able to take what comes out of those events and use them in my practice.

What advice do you have for someone just starting out in your field/specialty with fire investigators?

They have to become educated in the subject matter.  It is not enough to simply repeat or “parrot” what an expert witness tells you, or to robotically ask a pre-set list of questions.  You have to understand the science; if you don’t, you’ll never be able to be an effective fire science litigator.  I recommend that they work with an expert in the field and get onto the scenes and learn. I’ve probably investigated 150 to 200 fire scenes, actually getting my hands dirty and trying to determine the origin and cause of a fire.  It makes a huge difference in understanding what you’re looking at in any given case, and how to approach future cases.

What advice do you have for existing NAFI members or fire investigators?

The learning process never ends.  If you think you can’t learn something or be taught something, you’re a relic of the past. Every day there is a new development, somewhere in our field.  I routinely see experts who think they can’t be taught something.  Then, when they are at a deposition or on the witness stand, they figure out, quite unfortunately, that they were wrong.  There are many tools that NAFI provides to help with training and continuing education.

What is your favorite book?

I’ve always liked the fantasy genre, so I would say The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  My favorite author currently is Steve Berry, who writes great historical mystery fiction.

When you were a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?

Interestingly, for a brief period of time as a small child, I wanted to be a priest.  That didn’t last too long, and then I got into history and learning about the Presidents.  So, I decided I wanted to be President, and I learned that most of them had been attorneys, so I needed to be an attorney.  I no longer have any desire to be in politics, but the intention to become an attorney stuck.