The National Fire Protection Agency Turns up the Heat on Hypothesis Testing in its 2014 Version of NFPA 921

The fire community is continuously evolving to recognize changes in science, technology and the legal implications of fire investigations.   NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) 921 Guide for Fire and Explosions Investigations, is a guide that seeks to educate the fire community about the current acceptable method of fire investigations. In order to do so, the committee of professionals that authors the guide publishes new versions every three years.  NFPA 921 was first published in 1992 and since has evolved into a document regarded by many, including some courts, as the “gold standard” in fire investigations.

The latest edition of NFPA 921 came out in 2014. Aside from adding color photos and user friendly online edition, the 2014 version was amended to emphasize some key areas surrounding the reliability of a fire investigator’s origin and cause analysis. One of the main area that received significant attention was the testing of an expert’s hypothesis.

Section 4.3.6, entitled “Test the Hypothesis” has been revised  from the 2011 edition and has included reference to the Annex. The Annex section for 4.3.6 now cites to ASTM standard E678 Standard Practice for Evaluation of Scientific or Technical Data and E620 Standard Practice for Reporting Opinions of Technical Experts. The annex section is completely re-written to require the investigator to account for all known facts or data in testing a hypothesis. This is extremely important because in Federal Court and states where Daubert is applicable, the expert’s opinion is admissible only where:  (1) it is based upon sufficient facts or data; (2) it is the product of reliable principles and methods; and (3) the expert has applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case.  Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharm., Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 592-594, 113 S. Ct. 2786 (1993)592-94. A simple reading of section 4.3.6 and its Annex section shows that its requirements are on all fours with those proscribed by NFPA 921 and ASTM.

NFPA 921 goes into greater detail about the types of tests that can be used to evaluate a hypothesis and the differences between cognitive and empirical testing. For purposes of highlighting the changes from 2011 and 2014, it appears, from the text of NFPA 921, the committee members who author this text sought to emphasize the need for careful scrutiny of an opinion about origin or cause before taking the stand.

The 2014 edition is available for viewing free on the NFPA website, click here. Printing is prohibited however. Sections that have changed from the previous addition will have a vertical line to the left of the text that has been changed from the previous version.


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