October 1, 2018 Vol. 1, No. 4

Sifting the Ashes



This month's lead story is about THE BOOK. It is finally available. I signed up to do a third edition in October 2016 and until I turned in the manuscript in early March, I had no "spare time". Let me just say that writing a book is a lot harder than it might look.


Here are some tributes from some distinguished colleagues.


As a 30-plus year fire investigator and lecturer, I have had the opportunity to read several books advertised as being resources for fire investigators. Of those, Scientific Protocols for Fire Investigation is one of the best. John Lentini has blended his extensive experience as a scientist, practical fire investigator and a central figure in the improvement of our profession in creating a must-have resource for all fire investigators. Scientific Protocols, now in its third edition, continues to excel at covering a broad variety of topics that are scientifically sound, well presented, legally compelling and interesting to read. While NFPA 921 offers sound guidance to fire and explosion investigators, Scientific Protocols weaves many of 921’s principles together with actual examples from a variety of cases and investigations. It is unsurpassed in coupling sound scientific principles with real-life fire examples and delivers common-sense suggestions of how to apply them in fire investigations. This book should be required reading for all professional fire investigators and those seeking to broaden their knowledge of the field.
Steve Carman, Carman Fire Investigations, Grass Valley, California

(Note: Steve provided many updated drawings for the chapter on Fire Dynamics)

Scientific Protocols for Fire Investigation stands out as the crème de la crème on the topic of fire investigation. The book is easy to read and understand and serves as the most credible in the world-wide fire investigation community.
Dennis J. Merkley, CEO, Fire Facts Incorporated Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Scientific Protocols is a must-have reference for any serious fire investigator or fire litigator. Lentini is at the forefront of fire science and that is reflected in his book.
—Stuart A. Sklar, Trial Attorney, Farmington Hills, Michigan

Lentini's brilliant monograph gives us a giant leg up in approaching the challenges of fire investigation.
—Dr. Bernard Cuzzillo, Fire Protection Engineer, Berkley, California

Scientific Protocols for Fire Investigation is a text that all professional fire investigators must read.
Wayne Chapdelaine, Fire Dynamics Analysts, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

Battle lines have been drawn around methodology, qualifications, and the reliable application of the scientific method. John Lentini has been a leader in these battles. Lentini's Scientific Protocols promotes the use of the scientific method, identifies the required science for qualification, and provides examples of relevant applications. The enhanced third edition must be found on the bookshelves of any educated fire investigator.
—Douglas J. Carpenter, Vice President/Principal Engineer, Combustion Science & Engineering, Inc., Columbia, MD


The book is available at https://www.amazon.com/Scientific-Protocols-Investigation-Forensic-Science/dp/1138037028/ref=dp_ob_title_bk



Case Study of the Month

(Case studies in this Newsletter are excerpted from Chapter 9, “Sources of Error in Fire Investigation,” in Scientific Protocols for Fire Investigation, Third edition, CRC Press, 2018. The textbook can be purchased in hard cover, soft cover or in e-book format at www.firescientist .com)


Donald and Linda Herndon v. First Security Insurance1

How a perfectly good product failure case was derailed by “irregular patterns.”

Donald Herndon returned to his home at approximately 4 PM on the afternoon of November 9, 2009 to find it full of smoke. He called 911, then the fire department came and extinguished the fire. The room of origin was the kitchen, and it never became fully involved.

Figure 9.11 (a) shows the overall view of the area of origin. A cabinet above the microwave and one mounted to the side fell off the wall and the countertop, shown in Figure 9.11 (b), was both burned and broken. There was a receptacle found in the center of the origin area, which is shown in Figure 9.11 (c).

Figure 9.11 (a) Origin area in the Herndon kitchen.

Figure 9.11 (b) Reconstruction of the base cabinet and counter top below the origin.


According to the Herndons, there was an Air Wick air freshener plugged into the receptacle. A burned air freshener was found in the debris adhering to some utensils from the drawer below the receptacle, as shown in Figure 9.11 (d). This damaged unit was compared with another Air Wick device found in an undamaged condition. This comparison is shown in figure 9.11 (e). The most likely explanation for the finding of the Air Wick in the origin area was that it fell out of the receptacle and landed in the drawer when the counter above the drawer failed. Clearly, the side of the Air Wick device that was plugged in was far more heavily damaged than the side of the device that was facing the kitchen. Hoping to find some subrogation, the insurance carrier put the Air Wick manufacturer of potential liability, and they dispatched an electrical engineer to the scene.

Figure 9.11 (c) Receptacle at the center of the area of origin. Only the metallic parts remained. The first engineers who examined this receptacle failed to notice small, but obvious signs of electrical arcing on both the brass and steel parts.


Figure 9.11 (d) Air Wick brand air freshener found adhering to plastic utensils from the kitchen drawer, where it fell during the fire.


Despite its condition, the engineer interpreted the location of the Air Wick as evidence that it was not plugged in. He wrote in his report, “Because neither evidence of any failed Airwick device components in the debris nor any Airwick plug prongs were found in the receptacle, the evidence indicates that an Airwick device was not plugged into the receptacle as reported by the Herndons and therefore could not have caused or contributed to the fire.” The engineer’s examination of the receptacle resulted in the following conclusion: “There were neither plug prongs found in the receptacle jaws nor any electrical activity on the current carrying parts of the receptacle.” Later on, in his deposition, the engineer stated that the receptacle “showed no evidence of malfunction or electrical activity.”2 As will be shown, this was an error, but the fire investigator for the insurance company believed the engineer, despite the engineer’s client’s obvious interest in not finding the air freshener to be involved.

At the fire investigator’s recommendation, the insurance company sent their own electrical engineer to the scene, and he also opined, “The wall receptacles and air freshener exhibited no evidence of an electrical failure.”3

Figure 9.11 (e) Comparison of the damaged Air Wick from the origin with an undamaged exemplar. The side of the damaged unit in contact with the receptacle is the side that burned, while the side facing the kitchen was relatively undamaged.


The fire investigator was unshakeable in his conviction about the alleged arson. He stated in his deposition, “There was no reasonable hypothesis reached to explain how the fire damage to the cabinets and microwave oven could have created the irregular patterns on the floor.” 4 He also reached the erroneous conclusion that there were two points of origin: one on the counter and another on the floor below it. Actually, the counter sustained damage when the liquid from the Air Wick was released on to the counter. The fire investigator had not even bothered to learn whether that liquid was combustible. (According to the easily obtainable MSDS, it was combustible with a flash point in excess of 160 oF.)

Figure 9.11 (f) Irregular pattern falsely attributed to burning ignitable liquid. The damage was actually caused by burning melted plastic. Ignitable liquid is incapable of causing this kind of damage on a smooth surface.


What caused three people to reach the wrong conclusion (and overlook critical evidence in the process) was the presence of irregular fire patterns on the hardwood floor, shown in Figure 9.11 (f). Further, four samples from the hardwood floor were analyzed. in the laboratory, and medium petroleum distillate (MPD) was detected. The laboratory analyst called the fire investigator and requested a comparison sample, and he complied. The comparison sample also tested positive for MPD, but the investigator was so enthralled by the irregular patterns that he ignored this inconsistent data.

The insurance company therefore denied the claim of the Herndons and they filed suit in order to enforce their contract. The Herndons’ attorneys, Ty Tyler and Clark Hamilton, hired Richard Underwood, an electrical engineer, and the author to examine the evidence. Figure 9.11 (g) shows electrical melting on the brass buss from receptacle and Figure 9.11 (h) shows an area on the grounding strap that clearly experienced an electrical arc. This evidence could not have been clearer. It is not clear that there was anything wrong with the Air Wick, as this kind of arcing damage can be the result of arc tracking, which, in turn, can result from contamination on a nonconductive surface, and contamination is certainly likely to occur on receptacles next to kitchen stoves.

Figure 9.11 (g) Arcing damage on one of the brass busses in the receptacle at the origin.

Figure 9.11 (h) Arcing damage on the steel grounding strap in the receptacle at the origin.

The insurance investigators’ hypothesis that the irregular patterns were caused by the application of ignitable liquid, specifically MPD, was tested and was disproved. First, as demonstrated by the analysis of the comparison sample, MPD is not an unusual finding on hardwood flooring. It is used as a solvent for the floor coating, and remains trapped indefinitely in the polymer matrix.5 Second, MPD burning on a smooth surface will burn itself out in less than a minute and cause almost no damage. The heavy damage seen on the floor was due to the presence of melted plastic, specifically melted polystyrene foam that was stored in the cabinets that were located above the origin of the fire. Mrs. Herndon used the used foam shapes in her craft making, and the shapes fell onto the floor. The insurance company’s fire investigator learned about this, but did not believe the foam pieces could move four or five feet. Figure 9.11 (i) shows an experiment conducted by the author burning medium petroleum distillate on unfinished plywood, and figure 9.11 (j) shows the burning on a section of flooring cut from the Herndon residence. Neither of these experiments caused any damage to the flooring beyond a slight blistering of the finish.

Figure 9.11 (i) Medium petroleum distillate burning on unfinished plywood. The fire caused practically no damage.

Figure 9.11 (j) (top) Medium petroleum distillate burning on a section of the Herndon’s floor. (bottom) Herndon flooring after exposure to burning MPD.

Figure 9.11 (k) (top) Polystyrene foam cube burning on a section of the Herndon’s floor. (bottom) Herndon flooring after exposure to burning melted plastic foam.

Figure 9.11 (k) shows a subsequent experiment in which a polystyrene foam cube was burned on top of the hardwood, and it resulted in exactly the kind of damage to the hardwood as was seen in the residence.

Despite having all this information, both affirmative evidence showing that the fire started at the receptacle, and the negative evidence disproving that the damage was the result of burning ignitable liquid, the insurance carrier refused to settle. The case was tried to a jury in November 2012, more than three years after the fire. The jury had no difficulty understanding the evidence and quickly returned a verdict in favor of the Herndons.

9.10.8.1 Error Analysis

There were serious errors committed by all three of the investigators who came early to the scene. The fire investigator was misled by the irregular patterns on the floor, because he did not keep up with the literature and was unaware of the work that had been published in 2000 by Anthony Putorti showing that damage on smooth surfaces was short-lived and did not cause much damage when the fuel was an ignitable liquid.6 This caused him to misinterpret critical data. The electrical engineers overlooking the obvious damage to the receptacle, and failing to account for the condition of the Air Wick device was negligent at best. One of them even said that the device was not plugged in. They overlooked critical data. None of the insurance company’s witnesses changed their mind when they were confronted with the melting of the receptacle parts that they saw for the first time when they were deposed. Even after they saw it, they chose to disregard the inconsistent data that was visible on the receptacle parts. The fire investigator chose to ignore the inconsistent data when he learned that his comparison sample contained MPD.


9.10.8.2 Significance

The errors made by two electrical engineers demonstrate that it is easy to overlook small but critical artifacts. Almost all accidental fires start in very small areas with a high energy density, as this one did. There is no ignition scenario that will account for the electrical artifacts other than one with an origin in or on the receptacle. Yet both engineers had an incentive to “rule out” the receptacle. One engineer ruled out his client’s product, while the other supported the incorrect interpretation of the irregular pattern favored by the fire investigator who suggested that he be hired. The testing provided additional validation of the work of Mealy, Benfer and Gottuk on ignitable liquid fires referred to in Chapter 3, and pointed out for the jury the difference between liquids and melted solids. The fire investigator was making the same mistake he had been making for 30 years, and no doubt continues to this day.

1 Donald Scott Herndon and Linda Tranter Herndon, Plaintiffs, v. Security First Insurance Company, a Florida insurance corporation, Defendant. In the Circuit Court, Fourth Judicial Circuit, in and for Duval County, Florida Case No.: 2010-Ca-007262 Division: Cv-C

2 Herndon v. Security First, August 29, 2011 Deposition of Eric Jackson, P.E., page 20.


3 Martini, H., (2009) Report on Herndon fire, Unified Investigations and Sciences File No. FL010900813.

4 Herndon v. Security First, April 21, 2011 Deposition of Herbert Webber, page 94.


5 Lentini, J. (2001), “Persistence of Floor Coating Solvents,” J. Forensic Sciences, 46 (6) 1470. Available at www.firescientist.com/publications

6 Putorti, A., (2000) Flammable and Combustible Liquid Spill/Burn Patterns, NIJ Report 604-00, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice. Available at http://www.imprimus.net/PDF%20Files/Downloadable%20Files%20Page/NIJ%20Publications/NIJ%20-%20Flammable%20Liquid%20Spill&Burn%20Patterns.pdf


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Thank you for your interest. If you have any suggestions for future articles please email me at scientific.fire@yahoo.com

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