Testing hypotheses, reconstructing fire scenes, evaluating hypotheticals

Fire modeling for fire scene reconstruction is a method used to analyze the spread and behavior of fire to help determine and/or eliminate the root cause. Fire models are mathematical descriptions of fire dynamics and chemistry in a form suitable for computer-based solution.  The solutions are displayable as realistic renderings or animations.  Fire models have multiple applications in forensic work including hypothesis testing and evaluation of the consequences of hypotheticals.

Testing Hypotheses

Whether a hypothesis concerns origin, cause, or fire spread, under NFPA 921 the hypothesis must comport with the case facts and our knowledge of fire science.  Fire modeling, an embodiment of fire science principles, is a powerful tool for evaluating hypotheses. Questions like “If a fire started at 9:00 AM in Room X involving a flaming ignition of the couch, would eyewitnesses have seen smoke in Hallway Y at 9:10 AM?” can be addressed.  In this example, fire modeling links the case fact of smoke observations to what is possible based upon fire science principles.  If the fire modeling does not result in smoke in the corridor at the time when it was observed, the hypothesized fire is not consistent with the observation.  The power of fire modeling lies in its basis in the fundamentals of fire science and its ability to deal with complex buildings and systems.

Testing Hypotheticals

Fire modeling is also a powerful tool in evaluating hypotheticals. If the fire alarm had been operational, when would the fire have been detected, when would the fire department have arrived, what fire would they have faced, and what fire damage/consequences would be expected?  Fire modeling is an important element of answering this type of question.  Other hypotheticals can involve the status of building components and systems, the potential effects of actions taken or not taken, or the potential effect of the use of design alternatives.  Fire modeling is an important tool in assessing the impact of code violations or other deficiencies on a fire outcome.

Reconciling Witness Statements with the Fire Scene

Fires are a complex physical process whose outcome is sensitive to the physical conditions present.  Seemingly minor details such as which doors and windows were open or closed can have a large impact on a fire’s growth and the movement of its smoke and other toxic products.  It is not unusual for witnesses to a fire to have conflicting recollections of these details.  Fire modeling can be used to reconcile such differences.

Clear Depictions for the Layperson

Fire science, fire modeling, the details of a fire timeline can all be very complex.  The use of advanced modeling tools such as the NIST Fire Dynamics Simulator can provide realistic explanatory images.  One may not be able to recreate an actual fire in the courtroom to show a jury how big a fully involved sofa fire can become, but modeling can provide images and animation to clearly depict that.

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