When a false report determines a heater caused a building to burn down, the investigation turns to a question of integrity.

After fire destroyed a two-story cottage, questions about the cause and origin of the fire were left unanswered. While the fire spread throughout the first-floor art studio and the upper-level bedroom and kitchen living space, the locus of the fire was on the second floor, where an electric baseboard heater used to heat the bedroom. On behalf of the tenant, the public adjuster retained a fire cause and origin (C&O) specialist. The specialist's report concluded that the "old" heater caused of the fire, although he was unable to find any defect - and in fact, the heater wasn't even old.

Unfortunately, the C&O specialist died before finding an accurate resolution. The tenant's lawyer then hired two more specialists. Also unable to identify any problems with the heater, they agreed with the original specialist's viewpoint, that the "old" heater was the cause of the fire.

Defending the interest of the property owner, the insurance company's attorney hired me and my team of forensic engineers to determine the true cause and origin of the fire. We read numerous reports, studied almost 100 color photographs, and read discovery documents - including deposition transcripts of the various parties. A cursory arson investigation determined there was no accelerant residue on the premises.

We believed arson was not the cause of the fire. But if the heater really was the cause, the owner of the building would be liable for the cost of the damages, not the tenants. The tenants did not have content insurance. Their only hope of recovery lay in finding a "deep pocket" to blame for the cause of fire. If they were not successful in this endeavor, they would not recover any of the estimated $250,000 allegedly lost.

Following an extensive inspection, testing, and analysis of the heater, we decided there was no defect in the unit that could have caused the fire. However, we still had two concerns.

• If all parties, including my team, agreed that the fire started in proximity of the heater, how did it start? The heater had an "ON/OFF" switch with a thermostat setting for low-high heat. With the control turned to the "ON" position, it's plausible that ignition material (cotton tee shirts, etc.) near the heater could ignite. The fire could have started at the locus of the heater; however, the heater itself was not the cause of the fire.

• How could three independent C&O investigators conclude the heater caused the fire?

The initial investigation led to a report by a professional engineer, who did not have a license in the discipline of electrical engineering. After evaluating his background, we discovered he didn't have the background to test the electrical heater or circuits. The second expert never even saw the heater! He simply agreed with the specialist's opinion. Then we learned the third investigator also took the first specialist's opinion, without ever evaluating the cause himself.

Comprehensive forensic investigations, including cause and origin fire assignments, involve factors beyond technical issues. Yet a similar goal should factor into each investigation: the search for truth. In this case, it payed to investigate the scene of the fire as well as the backgrounds of the three "experts."

This is a problem that goes against the integrity of my responsibilities as a forensic engineer. Forensic engineers perform services only in areas of their competence. We are truthful and objective in our reports, testimony, and statements. We pursue each case in a professional and scientific manner. For forensic engineers, ethics is an intrinsic part of carrying out an objective forensic investigation.

Sidebar: Finding the Smoking Gun

Over the years, clients have asked me to conduct an investigation that would be of benefit to them. For example, years ago there was a fire in a Congressman's office where the parties, after first ruling out arson by protestors, asked me to "find the smoking gun in the copy machine." When we determined that a secretary left early and failed to shut off the electric coffee pot heater near an abundant source of combustible material, they were upset with us. That conclusion would deter them from recovering the money they had to pay out in the claim.