Unsupported Elimination of Electrical Appliances and Wiring

NFPA 921 | Law Review Articles | Research ArticlesCases | Other

Elimination of an electrical appliance or electrical conductor as a heat or ignition source by visual examination is a common and troubling feature of many fire-scene examinations. A standardized methodology for conducting such an examination does not exist and NFPA 921 provides little guidance in how to go about identifying electrical appliances that may have caused a fire from a similarly damaged appliance that did not. The error rate of this type of critical forensic examination has never been measured and is completely unknown.

NFPA 921

NFPA 921 (2014) 19.3.2 at 200
Investigators should identify and document all heat producing items in the area of origin. Heat-producing items include devices, appliances, equipment, and self-heating and reactive materials. The investigator should also identify devices or equipment that are not normally heat producing, but may produce enough heat for ignition through misuse or malfunction.

NFPA 921 (2014) 19.5 at 202
The investigator is cautioned not to eliminate a potential ignition source merely because there is no obvious evidence for it. For example, the investigator should not eliminate the electric heater because there is no arcing in the wires or because the contacts are not stuck. There may be other methods by which the heater could have been the ignition source other than a system failure, such as combustible materials being stored too close to it. Potential ignition sources should be eliminated from consideration only if there is reliable evidence that they could not be the ignition source for the fire. For example, an electric heater can easily be eliminated from consideration if it was not energized.

NFPA 921 (2014) 19.5.1 at 202
Devices present at the point/area of origin which are either heat-producing, or are capable of heat production when they sustain a fault or failure should always be placed on the list of hypotheses, even if, for some reason, they are easy to eliminate.

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