Jim is a forensic chemist, a member of the Institution of Fire Engineers and holds the Forensic Science Society Diploma in Fire Investigation, accredited as a Post-Graduate Diploma by the University of Strathclyde. He is also a Certified Fire Investigator under the International Association of Arson Investigators scheme and in 2007 was elected a Fellow of the Forensic Science Society, now the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences, in recognition of significant contributions to the field of fire investigation. Jim also holds a UK trade qualification in electrical installations and systems.
Jim began his career in forensic science in 1972 and has specialised in the investigation of fires and explosions since 1979. Formerly a member of the Fire Investigation Unit at the Metropolitan Police Forensic Science Laboratory (“Scotland Yard”) with a background in criminalistics, he has examined around 4,000 fire and explosion scenes including over 350 fatalities, carried out laboratory examinations and analyses on items and materials originating from more than 1,000 others, and given evidence as an expert witness on numerous occasions in a wide variety of legal settings.
Jim is one of only a few specialists worldwide in the interpretation of thermal damage and injury distribution to injured and deceased victims of fire, helping to explain the person’s orientation and movements while the burning was taking place. He has devised and delivered fire investigation education and training in several countries and is widely sought after as a writer and speaker internationally.
Jim is a member, former committee member and office holder of the NSW Association of Fire Investigators, and a member of the Victorian and UK Associations of Fire Investigators.
What inspired you to enter the fire and explosion investigation industry?
I always wanted to work in forensic science since I was about 11, inspired largely by Sherlock Holmes stories, and was lucky enough to join the Metropolitan Police Forensic Science Laboratory (London, ‘Scotland Yard’) after leaving school. Following basic training in a wide range of disciplines, I worked in Criminalistics and Anti-Terrorism for a few years while studying Chemistry part time before getting the opportunity to join the specialist Fire Investigation Unit on a trial basis. I found I had some aptitude and a real affinity with the work and never went back!
Can you tell us about the most interesting or rewarding case you’ve investigated?
It’s difficult to pick one from the over 4000 I have done since 1979. The big, high-profile ones like the New Cross fire where 13 teenage partygoers died, Windsor Castle and Kings Cross Underground Station in London are always front of mind but some of the smaller low-profile ones can be more technically challenging. A more recent example would be the destruction of a house and two cars due to self-heating of exterior timber oil on rags left bundled up in a carport.
What is your main area of interest or speciality, and why is this area important to you?
I have several special interest areas within the discipline including:
fatal and serious injury incidents
interpretation of thermal injury distribution
gas and vapour explosions
heavy machinery fire causes
training of police, scenes-of-crime, fire service and forensic science personnel in fire investigation
quality assurance systems and accreditations
health and safety for investigators
In an early edition of Kirks Fire Investigation, John DeHaan wrote ‘all fires should be treated as potential arson until proved otherwise.’ It follows that all fatal and serious injury fires should be treated as potential murders until proved otherwise. Unfortunately this is still not common practice in many jurisdictions, and there is often a rush to ‘find’ or accept at face value a suggested accidental or non-suspicious cause.
My interest in interpretation of thermal injury and clothing damage arose from involvement in a number of alleged cooking accidents and suicides among female members of certain ethic groups in London which, on detailed investigation, were shown to be actual or attempted murders (so-called ‘honour’ or ‘dowry’ killings). It has also proved very helpful in determining the position and movements of persons suspected of setting deliberate fires, especially involving volatile flammable liquids.
I learned a lot from more experienced forensic scientists, fire officers and others when I was a newcomer to this discipline. My friend Mick Gardiner’s company motto is ‘Live. Learn. Pass it on’. I am passionate about sharing the knowledge and experience I have been fortunate enough to gain over the last forty-odd years with other professionals, whether experienced investigators or just starting out in the field.
What do you most enjoy about working in the fire and explosion investigation industry?
Problem solving – answering the hard questions that very few other people can. Interacting with a wide range of people, from bereaved relatives to criminal suspects to professionals in other fields. Making a valuable contribution to society.
What do you believe sets Fire Forensics apart from other investigation companies?
Our commitment to the highest quality in all we do, which is underpinned by the knowledge and skill levels of our team, and the way we work together and support each other.
Can you share your proudest career moment?
Oh, so many to choose from. One would be when I was elected as a Fellow of the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences, only the second in the speciality of Fire and Explosion Investigation. This category of professional membership is awarded only to people who have achieved distinction in forensic science and related areas over a significant period. Criteria include extensive casework experience, significant contribution to research and development, significant contribution to policy and practice, extensive peer recognition and significant qualifications.
What are you most looking forward to achieving with Fire Forensics in 2021?
Continuing to share experience and knowledge with the rest of the team, getting the WA office fully up and running with a full time team member in post, helping to build the business into the pre-eminent fire and explosion investigation firm in the Southern Hemisphere.
What are your favourite things to do during your down-time?
Arthritis permitting, I enjoy walking in nature. Getting my son’s collectable Holden V8 ute back on the road. Cricket tragic and perennially disappointed Scottish Rugby supporter. Trying to resume hobby photography but lacking time. Reading and getting ideas for my first novel – watch this space.