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Fire Science—John Lentini’s Book, Scientific Protocols for Fire Investigation, Is a Must-Own Reference For Those Involved With Fire Losses and Claims

Most property insurance cases historically adjusted by public adjusters 100 years ago involved fire because that peril was the predominant peril insured before the advent of the open peril, aka “all risk” insurance form, which has largely replaced the fire policy. All public adjusters should have a basic understanding of fire science and how fire and heat impact a building structure. An essential reference source that should be found in all public adjuster libraries is the third edition of John Lentini’s book, Scientific Protocols for Fire Investigation. 1

In yesterday’s post, Fire Cause and Origin and the Junk Science of Arson Investigations, I noted how many policyholders were accused of arson by insurance companies as a result of junk fire science. Lentini dedicated one chapter of his book to this topic. The introductory paragraphs are worthy of consideration for those conducting any type of forensic analysis:

The first edition of this text was written in 2004. At that time, the myths described in this chapter were believed by a significant number of fire investigators. Over time, retirements and the effect of texts like National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 921 and others, as well as court rulings overturning cases based on myths, have reduced the prevalence of the myths in current practice. For fire investigators who began their careers after 1992, NFPA 921 has always been a fact of life, although the Guide cannot be said to have gained general acceptance before 2001. There are still incarcerated citizens who are appealing convictions that occurred before 2001, but today it is unusual to see a report containing conclusions based on myths. Many of the texts containing the myths are still in print, but fire investigation texts published after 2001 are likely to be myth-free or nearly so. That is not the case with some general investigation or criminal justice texts. In 2015, the author found it necessary to contact the writers of two widely used texts, and request that they fix their chapters on fire investigation in their next editions.

Despite the myths’ waning popularity, an exposition of their history is still worthwhile. The introduction and persistence of mythology in fire investigation are an unfortunate part of the history of the discipline and an area that many fire investigators do not like to think about. Some would like to keep these dirty little secrets locked away in a closet in the hope that people will gradually forget about them and they will not be a problem anymore. It is this failure to address a serious problem in the training and education of fire investigators that caused the myths to persist. The unfortunate consequence is that innocent lives are destroyed by well-meaning but ignorant investigators. The purpose of this chapter is to attempt to understand why the myths came into being and why some of them still persist. The hope is that new investigators, or those considering entering the discipline, can be spared the necessity of having to “unlearn” things that are simply not true.

Just as in the study of Greek or Roman mythology, no single reason explains why a myth develops. Certainly, no reason exists to believe that any investigator deliberately sets out to promulgate something that is not true. It is likely that most myths came about as a result of unwarranted generalizations. For example, an investigator might observe that in a garage fire, a pattern of spalling surrounds the remains of a gasoline container and makes an association of gasoline with spalling. The next time he sees spalled concrete, he infers that gasoline must have been involved.

Some myths arise because of intuitively obvious “deductions.” The notion that gasoline burns hotter than wood is appealing; as anyone who has ever started a wood fire knows, it is much easier to start it with liquid fuel, and certainly after a short time, a fire started with, for example, gasoline is throwing off much more heat than the fire burning wood only. Therefore, the flame temperature must be higher, right? Wrong! But even Paul Kirk, arguably one of the finest forensic scientists of his time, bought into this notion….

I often wonder how many myths regarding hail damage, wind damage, and other sorts of losses are being manipulated by insurance company experts the same way the fire experts, some from the same entering companies, did the same when I was a much younger attorney. It is hard for me to read Lentini’s book and not think about the insurance industry experts’ offices being raided by the FBI, as noted in Unethical Claims Cultures Promote Outcome Oriented Expert Reports:

This is a problem in the insurance industry. It is one of ethics and claims leadership not doing enough to put an end to it. I am surprised there is not more discussion of the financial conflict between vendors trying to provide reports which lower claims payments in return for repeat business and the ethical promise to fully and promptly pay the insurance consumer. Yet, with the Congressional investigations about to get underway and more media attention to this plague, somebody will eventually get the message or there will be more of this type of litigation and criminal investigations…

Today, most policyholders need an insurance policy to cover the expenses of hiring experts and professional help to disprove insurance company engineering opinions and valuations. Otherwise, they are never made whole.

Thought For The Day Taken From Lentini’s Book

“For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.—John F. Kennedy Yale University Commencement, June 11, 1962”
— Scientific Protocols for Fire Investigation, Third Edition (Protocols in Forensic Science) by John J. Lentini

1 John Lentini, Scientific Protocols for Fire Investigation, 3rd Ed., CRC Press (2019).





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