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It's about finding answers, not blame - the fire investigator's story

February 15 2020

When the call comes in the middle of the night Paul Shaw’s first thought as a fire investigator is how he will find the answers.

The role of a fire investigator is to determine the cause and origin of any fire. We want to know where exactly the fire has started and what caused it.

Station Manager Paul Shaw

What has caused the fire? How did it start?

“Our role is to provide answers and not to apportion blame,” he says.

It is a demanding and highly responsible role built upon the foundations of years of experience working around fires and intensive training.

Paul may be called upon around the clock to attend the scenes of fires and use his skills and expertise as a fire investigator for Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service.

“The role of a fire investigator is to determine the cause and origin of any fire. We want to know where exactly the fire has started and what caused it. We need to understand if anything untoward has happened.”

The next step, depending on the complexity of the fire, is to determine if it is accidental or deliberate. It can take hours or years to complete an investigation as there may be a complex scene and fatalities.

If the fire is deliberate then Paul works with the police who investigate arson.

If it is decided the blaze was accidental then Paul may be investigating or conducting tests on white goods, such as fridges or washing machines for example. He may then report to the Fire Chiefs’ Council who will take the matter up with manufacturers on a national level.

Attending the scene of a devastating fire when where there may still be bodies awaiting removal is a harrowing experience.

“It’s a struggle and I’m not going to say it hasn’t affected me because it does,” Paul says. “But I’m blessed here with great support from colleagues and we bounce off each other. But we have a job and we have to be proactive. We have a duty to find the answers.”

Paul combines his work as a station manager at Lichfield with his investigative duties. He is one of several investigating officers in Staffordshire to combine roles.

The Service is supported by colleagues from the larger, neighbouring West Midlands Fire and Rescue Service which has full-time investigators.

Training for fire investigators builds on years of experience. “An operational background provides that experience as you understand how fires develop and burn and what scenes look like.

Residential courses, training from experts and exercises build investigators’ skills further.

As an expert witness Paul may find himself called upon to attend crown court or coroner’s court to give evidence. He takes pride in representing Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service.

“If I’m not required to give evidence and told I can go then I know I’ve done a great job on my report,” he adds.