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In the event of a fire, the first priority is of course to extinguish it, rescue any injured individuals, and evacuate the affected areas. After the immediate threat has been neutralized, the second phase can begin, and that is a fire investigation. The term “fire investigation” brings to mind a criminal investigation- and though this is sometimes the case, such as in cases of suspected arson, more commonly a fire investigation is looking to establish the events that led up to even an accidental fire where no humans were involved. Equipment malfunctions, spontaneous combustion, and procedure failures can all be potential sources of fire that an investigation may uncover.

The issue of fire investigation is complicated by the fact that fires often spread to cover large areas, and do not necessarily spread equally in all directions out from the source of the first spark. Instead, factors like building shape, the materials in the path of the fire and their flammability and burn rate, and even wind speed and direction can cause the fire to spread outward in an irregular and often unpredictable pattern. Thus, fire investigations can lean heavily on an inspection and prioritization of attributes that are common fire hazards, such as flammable liquid storage and any malfunctioning equipment or exposed wires. Thus, a skilled fire investigation can often make use of a blend of deduction and induction. Another difficulty that can stymy fire investigations is the fact that the investigation is a second priority to putting out the actual fire and ensuring no human lives are in danger. This means that preservation of the “evidence” of how a fire may have started is not always considered or achieved. Thus, fire investigations have to contend not only with a destruction of evidence by the fire event itself, but also from the aftermath of the measures taken to extinguish it, like torrents of water and fire suppressant chemical sprays. Both of these can render areas important to the investigation either inaccessible, or damaged beyond usefulness for the extraction of evidence. Unfortunately, sometimes fire investigations can fail to be completed for this reason.

The result of a fire inspection can be twofold. First, the inspection will ideally produce the information of what, or who, caused the fire. In this case, any criminal or civil liability can be handled legally. Secondly, the inspection may produce recommendations or mandatory repairs intended to prevent similar events from happening again. These recommendations may pertain either to the building itself, the users of the building, or may even prompt widespread changes that update the protocol for similar buildings. For example, evidence of a fire started by improper fueling at a gasoline pump can prompt mandatory signage at all gas stations in the area in order to prevent a similar occurrence.

Fire inspections, while being second priority at the time of the fire, can be incredibly important in order to prevent numerous similar fires going forward. Determining the cause and any changes needed allows the industry or individual to learn from mistakes and proceed more safely.

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