FIRE INVESTIGATION: WHERE DOES IT STOP?
Many adjusters have been involved in some sort of fire investigation training, and are aware of the basic fire science, characterized by the fire triangle. Fuel, oxygen, and heat combine for form a chemical reaction which we call fire. Depending on the circumstances, each particular fire will grow and develop differently.
Experienced adjusters are normally proficient at locating the origin of fire, and identifying potential ignition sources. They recognize potential for subrogation due to fires caused by equipment failures, or tenant negligence. Similarly, they recognize potential arson fires, and understand the potential to deny payment on the claim.
This is often where the adjuster will bring in an expert to look into the causation issues for future litigation. Fire causation is obviously a critical issue, and the first question that has to be answered when investigating a fire.
While fire cause is important, equally important is fire spread after origin. Often, accidental fires grow much larger than they should, thereby creating much more dollar damage than they should. If the circumstances had complied with all the applicable Codes in place, damage could be reduced.
At least 50% of the large fire claims that Walters Forensic Engineering handle involve issues of fire spread, as compared to issues of liability for fire causation.
Missing fire stops at floors or walls will allow fire to spread out of the compartment of origin throughout a structure, normally resulting in complete destruction of the building. Fire stops are required by the Building Code, and the Fire Code requires maintenance of these fire stops after installation. If the fire stops are not present, then there is a non-compliance with a Code, and this will lead to liability on some party. This often brings in new defendants to an action, such as installers of fire stops, or inspectors hired to perform fire prevention inspections in a building.
The Fire Code outlines how cutting and welding is to be performed. It references a CSA Standard, outlining proper precautions during cutting and welding operations. Many contractors do not comply with this practice and are, therefore, liable if a fire results from their activities.
Fire suppression equipment, such as automatic sprinklers in a building, are often disabled, particularly in vacant buildings. The Fire Code does not allow for sprinkler systems to be disabled in a building unless the Fire Department is notified and approves of the action. Without automatic sprinklers in place, many small fires grow into large infernos and, as a result, liability may be attached to parties other than the owner.
In highrise residential buildings, fire protection equipment is mandated by the Building code, while maintenance is mandated by the Fire Code. Very often, the building owners will retain inspection firms to comply with the maintenance of this equipment. In the event of a fire, and an equipment failure, these inspectors could very well be liable for damages as a result of a failure in equipment that they have inspected. Similarly, if the inspector misses something, such as a shut valve on a sprinkler system and this results in an extension of fire, then the inspection firm would be liable for this omission.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the Canadian Standards Association (CSA), and the Underwriters Laboratory of Canada (ULC), are three agencies that write Standards, which are adopted within the Building and Fire Codes. These Standards cover a multitude of thinks, such as special extinguishing systems on deep fryers, maintenance of oil-fired furnaces, and installation of electrical equipment. While these Standards are often helpful in identify fire ignition cause, they are equally useful in helping to identify fire spread causes. In deep fryer situations, there is a requirement for extinguishing agent to be discharged in the vent, and also for the fans and power supply to be interlocked to de-energize when the system is activated. If this interlock is not provided, the fire could spread beyond the appliance of origin, resulting in extensive damage to the building.
The Building Code outlines what sort of materials can be used in the construction of buildings. In one situation, where an arson fire was set in a stairwell of a lowrise apartment building, a wall covering material in the stairwell was combustible, while the Code did not allow for this. This caused the fire to spread rapidly up the stairwell and into corridors, creating an unsafe environment for people trying to evacuate. This resulted in extensive fire damage and unnecessary injury to the people trying to escape the building. In this situation, fire cause was clear, and litigation revolved around the fire spread due to the non-compliance of the wall finish in the building.
It is always necessary to determine how the fire started, but it is equally important to consider such matters as, "Was the building properly constructed?"; "Was the fire protection equipment properly installed and maintained?"; "Were fire stops in place, and did they work?"; and "Did all the people involved do their job properly, whether they be a maintenance contractor, an equipment inspector, or a fire suppression crew?".
For example, if a smoke detector had no batteries, and the tenants in the building perished as a result of a fire, could they have been awakened and escaped if the batteries had been in place: Further, who removed the batteries, and who is responsible for maintenance of the equipment? In this situation, it is not sufficient to determine that the fire was caused in the living room couch by careless smoking without answering the questions of fire spread.
Walters Forensic Engineering has a wealth of experience in investigating such matters, and we are available for a free consultation on any situation you may be encountering. Feel free to pick up the telephone and give us a call.
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Walters Forensic Engineering | 277 Wellington
Street West, Suite 800 | Toronto, ON M5V 3H2