Fire Forensics brings truth from the ashes

Fire Forensics carries out investigations across buildings, road vehicles and mobile, static and fixed equipment.

Fire Forensics applies the most astute investigative skills to help companies get to the bottom of a mysterious fire or explosion.

Popular fictional detective Sherlock Holmes is armed by a profound knowledge of chemistry, anatomy, practical geology and politics that propels him to the uppermost tier of detectives in the pop culture world. 

His undoubted ability to solve mysteries and pick up hints when nobody else could is a talent that many of his audience would have a hard time forgetting. 

In the real world of fire investigations, the strength of Fire Forensics can be likened to that of Holmes.

With almost all team members of the company possessing a qualification in forensics science, instead of the popular criminal system background, Fire Forensics has been able to crack every mystery related to industrial fires and explosions that it has faced. 

This covers fires and explosions that occurred in a range of settings in Australia and overseas, from mines and mining equipment, residential, commercial and industrial buildings, to road vehicles and mobile, static and fixed equipment.

The company was involved in an investigation of an underground explosion with the New South Wales Mines Inspectorate, before being appointed to assist the ongoing Queensland Board of Inquiry into a similar event this year. 

“A lot of the people who work in the industry come from either a practical firefighting or crime scene background, or they come from the engineering pathway,” Fire Forensics founder and senior fire investigator James Munday tells Safe to Work. 

“Our training in forensics science, however, teaches us to develop and test a number of alternative hypotheses, and we test those against the evidence. Hopefully we’ll end up with one hypothesis we can’t disprove. 

“That’s what we aim for in getting to the most probable explanation of a fire incident.”

Although acknowledging that the team isn’t always lucky in this way, they must sometimes accept more than one most-probable hypothesis as the underlying cause of an incident. 

The wealth of experience afforded by the team takes them closer to discovering this more expertly than most. 

Munday himself has been involved in fire investigations since 1979, when he entered the industry from a law enforcement pathway.

It was in 1998 when he set up his own fire investigation consultancy in the United Kingdom that broadened his expertise across a diverse range of objects. 

Being exposed to incidents that mostly involved road vehicles, Munday’s natural shift into larger equipment used in the agricultural and civil engineering sectors revealed that they had the same principles applicable to mining. 

“Mining equipment isn’t a big leap from harvesters, believe it or not,” Munday says.

“And it is in this area that I found a niche in the industry, where there are only limited people who can assist with a big fire. 

“Maintenance or engineering crews can see what’s happened in a small fire in a small piece of equipment, understand it and deal with it – the evidence would be very obvious. 

“But when the fire has caused a lot of damage, it’s hard to see where it started. That’s one area of expertise we bring – fire dynamics. It affects the patterns which are formed by the fire and what’s left after the fire.”

The Fire Forensics team also used this slightly different angle to investigate a fire involving a coal screener that was built into an elevator. 

Fire Forensics discovered that the fire was caused by a build-up of coal under the belt. And coupled with a lack of maintenance and cleaning, “to the extent that the coal under the belt was constantly rubbed,” frictional heating caused the coal to ignite.

This is one of many cases where a fire or explosion was caused by simple decisions that didn’t seem to carry weight, but ended in a catastrophe. 

“We did an investigation involving a diesel-powered draining pump, which is a typical piece of equipment that everybody uses in the industry,” Munday says.

“What happened was, the maintenance crew had for some reason fitted the wrong oil filter. It was perhaps an honest mistake – they picked up a wrong part or fitted in a cheaper part.

“When the pump was running, the oil filter fitting failed, and hot oil was sprayed on the turbocharger, causing the entire pump to be lost and burnt down.”

Munday underlines that the consequences of a genuine mistake, such as using a cheaper part to save a few dollars or varying the layout of machinery, are only apparent “when something goes horribly wrong.”

Importantly, Fire Forensics’ investigation outcomes have empowered mining operations to prevent the same incident from recurring. 

With company plans to expand its Western Australian team this year, and backed by team members in New South Wales and Victoria, Fire Forensics can help more operators with prevention work.

“Some of our clients run operations in several continents,” Munday says, “So if you encounter an incident on one site, you should get down to the bottom of it to prevent another fire from happening in another location.” 

This story also appears in the May issue of Safe To Work.

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