Over the course of its 25-year history, NFPA 921 Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations has changed the practice of fire investigation for the better. Without a doubt, NFPA 921 has appropriately driven a more rigorous approach to fire investigation that seeks to avoid cognitive bias and reliance on techniques that, when rigorously examined, are little more than pseudoscience. One need look no further than the Cameron Todd Willingham matter, wherein a Texas man was executed in part based on a flawed fire investigation, to understand the importance of conducting a proper fire investigation.
As the practice of fire investigation has advanced, NFPA 921 has grown. The guide is normally updated every 3 years and the 2017 edition has recently been released. The guide now stands at 426 pages, quite an increase from the 120 pages of the original 1992 edition. Major changes or additions in the 2017 edition include: Active Fire Protection Systems, Documentation of the Investigation, and numerous changes to chapters on Origin Determination and Fire Cause Determination among others.
NFPA 921 continues to be used in the courts as a document that establishes the “standard of care” in fire investigation. As such, investigators should be familiar with its requirements and apply them as a working framework to accomplish an effective fire or explosion investigation that reaches a sound conclusion. Investigators should keep abreast of changes to NFPA 921 as a part of their continuing education activities.
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