AAAS Report on Fire Investigation

Attorneys who are handling cases involving arson allegations should be aware of the Forensic Science Assessments: A Quality and Gap Analysis – Fire Investigation publication that was released this month (July 2017). The report was produced by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The report looks at the discipline of fire investigations and identifies which parts are well founded in science and where gaps in knowledge exist. The report identifies 25 areas in need of additional research. The report is divided into the topics of fire scene investigation and fire debris analysis. The report concludes that canine alerts should not be relied upon unless confirmed by laboratory analysis (pp. 7, 18, 30). The report notes that some research has found erroneous conclusions about point of origin in excess of 75% (p. 5 of plain language version). Additional research regarding error rates is needed. (pp. 7-8). The report also contains an in-depth discussion of cognitive bias, the role it plays in fire investigation, and recommendations for minimizing bias in fire scene investigation (p. 8, 13, 26).

The full report is available for free download. A “plain language” summary version is also available.

The report is the result of a Working Group consisting of an academic fire engineer, an analytical chemist, a cognitive psychologist, and a forensic practitioner. The work was guided by an Advisory Committee which included a law enforcement official, a social scientist, a cognitive psychologist, a law professor, a judge, a biomedical researcher, a forensic scientist, and a statistician.

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