Analysis of Double Fatality Fire Allegedly Caused by a Portable Electric Heater

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Expertise Includes:

    • Electrical & Mechanical Control Systems
    • Fires & Explosions
    • Gas Fired Equipment & Appliances
    • ICC, NFPA, OSHA Codes & Standards
    • Industrial Processes & Operations

When fires occur, the effect on people’s lives is often devastating. This is especially true with fires that cause the death of a child. Clearly it is important to try and find the causes of such fires so that they can be prevented in the future. In such circumstances, it is especially important to follow a rigorous methodology in investigating the origin and cause of a fire. Investigators following a less than rigorous methodology may reach improper conclusions. Such was the case in a devastating fire investigated by Warren that was improperly alleged to have been caused by a supposedly defective product, a small electric space heater.

The fire occurred on a chilly February morning in a recreational vehicle being used as a weekend residence by a mother, father and their two children. The recreational vehicle was being heated by several electric space heaters powered by extension cords plugged into a nearby house. The parents woke up with the RV on fire, were unable to rescue their children, but got out of the RV. Tragically both children died.

A view of the burned RV.

A view of the burned RV.

The fire was investigated by a local Certified Fire Investigator. The investigator concluded that a certain electric space heater had caused the fire based on fire patterns around the heater. In his report, the investigator indicated that the space heater lacked a tip over switch. The investigator retained the heater, and the RV was hauled to a landfill. No other investigators examined the remains of the RV.

Based on the fire investigator’s report, a lawsuit was filed, on behalf of the family, against the space heater manufacturer.  A mechanical engineering professor at a state university, was retained by the plaintiffs as an engineering expert. The professor realized that the heater did in fact have a tip over cut off switch, but opined that the switch was defectively made and did not function in the subject fire. Further, he opined that poor airflow patterns within the allegedly defective heater prevented actuation of additional overheating safety features. The professor ran some tests, in which he bypassed all safety features, with one test resulting in the ignition of cloth positioned underneath an overturned heater.  This ignition occurred when the overturned   heater reportedly made a loud noise and glowed a bright orange color.

A joint lab examination  was conducted with an exemplar heater.

A joint lab examination was conducted with an exemplar heater.

Warren was retained to investigate the incident on behalf of the heater manufacturer. Using NFPA 921, Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations, as defining the standard of care for a proper fire investigation, we were able to show the original fire investigator had performed a poor fire investigation, and therefore his conclusion that the heater caused the fire was unreliable.   Further, we were able to refute all of the plaintiff’s engineering expert’s allegations against the product.  Rigorous testing of the product showed that all its safety features worked well, and that the only way a fire could have occurred was by complete failure of the unit’s electric heating coil, a failure that left characteristic damage to the heater coil. This characteristic damage was missing in the heater that was recovered from the RV.  Warren concluded that the heater was not the cause of the fire. The case settled on a favorable basis for the defendants.

This case showed how poor methodology in fire investigation and forensic engineering can lead to the wrong conclusions about the cause of a fire. The case was of such interest that a paper on the case was presented at the International Symposium On Fire Investigation.  Here is a link to the publication, “Analysis of a Double Fatality Fire Allegedly Caused by a Portable Electric Heater.

John Holecek, senior consulting engineer at Warren, is a licensed professional engineer in 8 states and has both a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering and Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of South Carolina.  A certified fire and explosion investigator by the National Association of Fire Investigators, John has more than 22 years experience in the design of industrial process equipment and is extremely knowledgeable in ICC, NFPA and OSHA codes and standards. He pairs more than 13 years of experience supervising manufacturing operations with deep knowledge in areas such as applied industrial heat transfer in oven design, industrial electrical process and motor control systems, material handling systems and fire protection systems. In addition he’s designed paint finishing systems, and commercial and consumer gas fired cooking appliances. John has managed outside contractors in site safety requirements and installation of industrial process equipment.  By virtue of his experience, he is well versed in federal and state worker safety regulations.

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