Having access to as much evidence and solid information at the onset of a claim is absolutely vital for a successful forensic investigation. After a vehicle fire, vehicles usually get moved to a holding yard and what is left on the road after the incident gets scraped up and left in the back seat for the adjuster and forensic experts to sort through to complete their investigations. Forensic experts often are not notified of the loss for several days which means evidence can be compromised before the investigation even gets started. Having detailed background information from the adjuster allows the expert to conduct a thorough examination, while controlling costs by eliminating the need for multiple visits and time spent asking questions and gathering data.
We always emphasize the importance of contacting a forensic expert as soon as you hear of an incident because we may be able to attend the scene before it is altered; that is the ideal situation, though we understand it may not be possible a lot of times. With that in mind, it places a greater weight on the adjuster to perform a high quality background and discovery investigation up front, since the “site” or loss location may be compromised by the time a forensic expert gets involved in the investigation. Additionally, since vehicle fires are so different from structural fires and can be heavily influenced by environmental and ventilation conditions, the background information required differs as well. Important details every adjuster should collect at the onset of a claim include the following:
- Vehicle type (which can be anything from a golf cart to mining equipment)
- Make, model, year and options
- Mileage and any service records
- Whether the vehicle was in motion or parked at the time of the fire (these scenarios represent dramatically different conditions regarding electrical systems, computer data, and fluid conditions)
- Aftermarket installations (eg. stereo equipment, remote starter, security system)
- Position of the vehicle (which direction it was travelling at the time of the incident and relative wind direction, all of which affect fire development and fire spread)
- Detailed witness discovery notes after they got out of the vehicle (where were they standing is important information. People will generally not stand downwind in the path of the smoke)
A statement should look like a work of art
The manner in which you relay relevant background and discovery information to a forensic expert in order for them to complete their investigation is really just a matter of painting a verbal picture of all of the events leading up to the fire. If you read a statement and feel as though you were at the fire, it is complete. If the statement doesn’t tell the full story you need to ask more questions and fill in the missing blocks of information until the painting is clear and complete.
To give investigators the clear, bullet-point facts they need, Origin and Cause has developed the checklist below to make it easier for adjusters to collect specific information from their clients:
Was the vehicle in motion? Yes/No
If yes, then:
- What was the location of the vehicle at the time of the fire?
- What direction was the vehicle headed?
- How long had the driver been driving before noticing smoke/flames?
- What did the driver see, smell or notice prior to the fire?
- Did the driver smell smoke first before seeing flames?
- Was the smoke coming from any particular area of the vehicle (driver side, passenger side, front or back, relative to the driver’s position)?
- Was there any performance or operational problems with the vehicle before the incident?
- Did any dashboard lights or indicators appear?
- What happened after the driver discovered the smoke and/or fire?
- Did they leave the engine running or did it stop by itself?
- When leaving the vehicle, was the door closed or left open?
- Was there anyone else in the vehicle?
- Did the driver try to put out the fire (e.g. opening the hood can have a dramatic effect on engine compartment fire spread and burn pattern as a result of the additional ventilation)?
- Where was the driver standing after leaving the vehicle and witnessing the fire? (a birds-eye view sketch can greatly simplify this)
- Which way was the smoke going (straight up or blowing in a certain direction)? This provides specific details on ventilation and fire spread
Was the vehicle parked? Yes/No
If yes, then:
- How long was the vehicle driven before it was parked?
- How long was it parked prior to the fire?
- Was a block heater plugged into the vehicle?
- Were there any appliances (e.g. cell phone) plugged into a power port?
- Was the vehicle locked at the time?
- Who has keys and where are they now?
- Was there any maintenance done on the vehicle recently?
- Who completed the repairs?
- Are there any maintenance records?
- Are there any cell phone images or videos of the fire?
- Are there any aftermarket modifications to the vehicle (alarm, stereo system, anti-rust module, etc.)?
- How long did it take for the fire department to respond?
- How long has the driver owned the vehicle?
- Any problems throughout its operational history?
- Was it new or used when purchased?
- What was the mileage on the vehicle prior to the fire?
Providing this detailed background and discovery information to the investigator as a formal Statement or as simple notes, will help the investigator tremendously – and allow them to determine the origin and cause of vehicle fires more efficiently and accurately.
To help you remember, just think CARS: Clear And Relevant Statements!
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BRIAN JAMES, Forensic Engineer, P.Eng., CFEI, CVFI
Brian is qualified court expert, and specializes in truck and heavy equipment fires, vehicle fires, mechanical failures, and product liability. Prior to working in forensic engineering consulting, Brian worked in the manufacturing industry, performing design engineering and project management on an international level.