National Fire Protection Association, NFPA 921, Guide for Fire and

National Fire Protection Association,
NFPA 921, Guide for Fire and
Explosion Investigations
An Update and a Perspective on the 2004 Edition
Daniel L. Churchward
Kodiak Enterprises, Inc.
6409 Constitution Drive
Fort Wayne, Indiana 46804
(260) 432-6590
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DANIEL CHURCHWARD began his career in 1971 as a police officer with the Allen
County, Indiana, Sheriff ’s Department. In 1978, he joined the Adams Township Fire
Department in Fort Wayne, Indiana, as a career firefighter. During this time, Mr.
Churchward learned the craft of fire investigation and had the opportunity to practice
his skills on many hundreds of fire scenes. In 1981, he began to perform fire origin
and cause investigations with Barker and Herbert Analytical Laboratories in New Haven, Indiana. He graduated from Purdue University with a B.S. Electrical Engineering
Technology in 1988 and assumed the position of engineering laboratory manager
with Barker Labs. In 1991, Royal Insurance hired Mr. Churchward into their SIU as
their only on-staff engineer. He either investigated or managed their large-loss fire
scenes for the Royal and had the opportunity to work many multimillion-dollar fires.
In 1995, Mr. Churchward started full time with Kodiak Enterprises, Inc. The company
specializes in fire investigation, safety consulting, large-loss site management, and
training. Today, Kodiak Enterprises consists of nationally recognized experts in fire
investigation technologies and methodologies.
Mr. Churchward has qualified as an expert witness in U. S. Federal District Courts and
several state jurisdictions. The highlight of his career has been his involvement in the
National Fire Protection Association Technical Committee on Fire Investigations. This
group has produced the NFPA 921, Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations. He is a
charter member of this committee and currently serves as committee chairman.
Kodiak Enterprises, Inc. accepts NFPA 921 as the most significant treatise on fire investigation and as an authoritative source for fire investigation technology and methodology.
Mr. Churchward is the chair of the NFPA Technical Committee on Fire Investigations.
This paper is a product of his work alone and is not meant to indicate the position, official or otherwise, of the NFPA, the Technical Committee as a group, or any of its
National Fire Protection Association, NFPA 921,
Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations
An Update and a Perspective on the 2004 Edition
Table of Contents
Background ............................................................................................................................................. 5
NFPA Process ........................................................................................................................................... 5
Highlights of the 2004 Edition ................................................................................................................. 6
Conclusion ............................................................................................................................................... 7
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National Fire Protection Association, NFPA 921,
Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations
An Update and a Perspective on the 2004 Edition
I. Background
The National Fire Protection Association (“NFPA”) began an effort in 1984 to develop a document that
would assist all fire investigators in conducting thorough and scientifically valid fire investigations. The effort
began with the formulation of the Technical Committee on Fire Investigations (“TCFI”) in late 1984 and will
culminate in the issuance in January 2004 of the 2004 edition of the Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigation.
This paper will provide insight into the development of the document and a perspective on the changes that
will exist in the new edition.
A brief overview of what has transpired in the 19 years leading up to this edition is in order. The TCFI
completed the initial edition of this document in late 1991 and the NFPA Standards Council issued the 1992
edition on 17 January 1992. The stated purpose was “…to assist in improving the fire investigation process and
the quality of information on fires resulting from the investigative process.” NFPA 921, Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations, 1992 edition. The TCFI’s position throughout the development process has been to “…provide guidance that is based on accepted scientific principals or scientific research.”
In 1994, the TCFI completed work on the 1995 edition of the document and the NFPA Standard’s Council
issued it on 13 January 1995. While the 1992 edition contained chapters focusing largely on the determination of
origin and cause, the 1995 edition contained several chapters that expanded the document’s purview to vehicle
fire investigation, management of major fire investigations, incendiary fires, appliances, and the integration of
an existing NFPA document, NFPA 907, Determination of Electrical Fire Causes, 1988 edition.
In 1997, the TCFI completed work on the 1998 edition of the document and the NFPA Standard’s Council
issued it on 16 January 1998. By this edition, the document had grown to 19 chapters and included a chapter on
fuel gas systems in buildings.
The fourth edition was completed in 2000 and issued by the NFPA Standards Council on 13 January
2001. This edition has grown substantially from the 1998 edition and includes several new chapters as well as
substantial text changes and additions to existing chapters.
Throughout the development of the document, the TCFI has kept to the original position: “…based on
accepted scientific principals or scientific research.” The success of this document within the fire investigation
and legal communities can be directly measured by the accomplishment of this goal.
At the time of the presentation of this paper in November 2003 in Phoenix, Arizona, at the DRI Fire and
Casualty Seminar, the 2004 edition of NFPA 921 will have been voted upon by the NFPA membership at its fall
meeting in Reno. I fully expect to be able to report that this edition has been accepted by the membership and
has been passed onto the NFPA Standards Council for their acceptance and issuance in January 2004.
II. NFPA Process
A brief overview of the “NFPA process” is in order. The NFPA utilizes a process whereby they create their
component document, The National Fire Codes. This process is standardized and utilized without exception by all
technical committees within the NFPA. Complete information about how the NFPA process works can be gotten at
its web site,
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Although the process is lengthy in its description, several key points should be made. Membership is not
required to participate. You must be a member of record for six months prior to being allowed to vote on the floor
of the annual or fall meetings. However, you can participate in all other respects as a nonmember. In all instances,
you must follow the rules of the process. The process is standardized and accepted as such by the American
National Standards Institute (“ANSI”). Although the forms offered by the NFPA to participate are not required,
use of them greatly facilitates your input.
The TCFI consists of 30 principal members with several alternates serving as well. All are appointed by
the Standards Council with their membership reevaluated every year. Membership is balanced by classifying each
member in a special interest group representing such classifications as “manufacturer,”“user,”“enforcing authority,”
and “special expert” to name a few. The purpose of this classification system is to insure that no committee is
dominated by one interest group. No one group can consist of more than 33 percent of the total membership of
the technical committee. The technical committees generally produce proposed documents or changes to existing
documents and passage requires a two-thirds vote on the ballot.
The scope of NFPA 921 is stated in the first paragraph of the document in the introductory chapter. It
states in part that this document is designed to assist individuals who are responsible for investigating and analyzing fire and explosion incidents and rendering opinions related to such incidents. The purpose expands the
scope to discuss in greater detail how the document can be used. Included in the purpose discussion are establishing guidelines and recommendations on a systematic investigation and limits that the document may have
with specific investigations that may be encountered. Although the document is described as a “guide,” the clear
implication to the fire investigation community is that not following the procedures and methodologies offered
in NFPA 921 will require justification. Many fire investigators classify NFPA 921 as a “standard of care” in the
fire investigation industry.
III. Highlights of the 2004 Edition
The 2004 edition of NFPA 921 has been developed over the past three years. One major change is that
all paragraphs of the document will be numbered in the 2004 edition. This change results from the NFPA’s decision to implement the Manual of Style (“MOS”) throughout the fire codes including those nonmandatory documents such as guides and recommended practices. Further changes resulting from the MOS will be the assignment
of chapter 1 as the introduction, the assignment of chapter 2 as the reference chapter, and the assignment of
chapter 3 as the definitions chapter. These changes will produce new chapter numbers throughout the remaining document.
In addition, another major change in the document is the development of a new chapter and the rewriting of existing chapters. Each will be discussed in turn.
All of the chapters are organized into sections of the document. Part I consists of basic information that
all fire investigators should know to conduct any fire investigation. These chapters include: administration, reference documents, definitions, methodology, basic fire science and dynamics, fire patterns, building systems,
electricity, human behavior, and legal considerations. Part II consists of topics specifically related to fire investigation technology. These chapters include: safety, sources of information, planning, recording the fire scene,
evidence, origin and cause determinations and failure analysis. Part III consists of incident specific topics. These
chapters include: explosions, incendiary fires, fire & explosion deaths & injuries, appliances, motor vehicle fires,
wildfire investigations and management of major investigations.
As a consequence of considerable confusion in the fire investigation and legal communities, the TCFI
chose to remove the discussion on cause classification from the cause determination chapter and develop it into
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November 2003
its own chapter. This new chapter is tentatively named the “Classification of Fire Causes” chapter. The cause determination chapter, as a consequence, was rewritten to accommodate this change. The classification chapter deals
with the four traditional classifications that the fire investigation community utilizes: accidental, natural, incendiary, and undetermined. The primary purpose of this new chapter was to inform all that the determination of a
fire cause as “undetermined” is different than the determination of a fire’s classification as “undetermined.” Many
fire investigations result in the determination of a fire cause, but few fire scenes can reveal sufficient evidence to
allow for the determination of the fire’s classification. Determination of the intent of the person(s) involved in the
fire cause almost always requires knowledge beyond the traditional origin and cause determination. Further, the
trier of fact needs to know that there is a difference between these two concepts so as to understand and judge
the relative merits of the testimony of the investigator.
The recording the scene chapter was completely rewritten and renamed “Documenting the Investigation.”
This chapter was recognized by the TCFI as being a significant chapter and worthy of greater discussion than what
had basically been the discussion from the 1992 edition. Although the task group responsible for this chapter
initially included considerable verbiage on report writing, the final draft has only a paragraph or two that discusses
this important topic. One substantial addition was the acceptance by the TCFI of NFPA 906, Fire Incident Field
Notes, into our purview. We updated the note pages from NFPA 906 and put most of them into NFPA 921 as an
appendix item.
The legal considerations chapter was rewritten as well. The rewrite consisted of basically reorganizing
the topics in the existing chapter and updating the discussion on Daubert and Kuhmo. Interestingly enough,
there was considerable debate within the TCFI on the need to include any discussion on Daubert or Kuhmo.
As was the case in past editions, there were several “hot button” issues that the TCFI had to manage. One
proposal submitted to the NFPA consisted of discussion that would have discouraged investigators from offering
opinions on fire pattern recognition based solely on the appearance of the patterns. Specifically, the discussion
related to investigators stating that certain patterns found in postflashover compartment could only have been
caused by “ignitable liquids” without first having laboratory confirmation of the presence of ignitable liquids. This
proposal passed nearly unanimously in the report on proposal (“ROP”) but drew considerable opposition in the
comment stage. As a consequence of the debate, the TCFI chose to rewrite the proposal, a process that made the
discussion even more restrictive. This discussion now does not limit the discussion to postflashover compartments! I anticipate that this issue will be an agenda item for the 2007 edition.
Another hot button item was a discussion on “investigator” and “analyst.” In the earliest edition, the TCFI
was approached by members from the public sector that voiced their concern that they would be held to a standard of care that far exceeded their capabilities. Specifically, they were saying that they were just “simple fire investigators” and not people who could address all the aspects of fire investigation that NFPA 921 was discussing. To
accommodate this concern, the TCFI specified a difference between investigation and analysis. Investigation was
defined as “the process of determining the origin, cause, and development of a fire or explosion.” Analysis was
defined as “process of determining the origin, cause, development, and responsibility as well as the failure analysis
of a fire or explosion.” This distinction has been carried throughout the document since the 1992 edition. The
work on the 2004 edition brought a proposal that further discussed the distinction. This time several persons
objected to the distinction and successfully stopped the new verbiage from going into the document. No steps
were taken to change any of the existing text related to this distinction.
IV. Conclusion
In conclusion, the 2004 edition of NFPA 921 has been submitted to the NFPA membership for acceptance
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at the fall meeting in Reno, Nevada. Although the results will not be know until after the publication of this paper,
I fully expect it to pass and be issued by the Standards Council of the NFPA in January 2004. Several perspectives
developed in this last cycle. The number of proposals and comments has dropped from years past. Most of the
proposals and comments were much more specific and considerably better thought-out than in past cycles. As a
consequence, many more of the proposals and comments were accepted by the TCFI than were accepted in the
past cycles. These circumstances suggest several trends.
• The document is nearing completion in regards to the development of new chapters.
• The fire investigation community is both reading portions of the document and studying it for its
• The fire investigation community is accepting the document and utilizing it for the common good.
• The quality of fire investigations is improving.
Although these trends are the opinion of the author and have only the author’s viewpoint to gauge them,
their accuracy should become apparent as time passes. NFPA 921 is the only peer-reviewed, consensus document
in the fire investigation community. All other texts pale in comparison for technical accuracy. NFPA 921 will
continue to lead the way in the fire investigation community in the discussion of technology and methodology
as it relates to fire investigation.
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Fire and Casualty ❖
November 2003