If there’s one thing Joe Towers knows, it’s that every fire is different.
Towers, who owns Global Forensics Inc. based in Red Deer, travels throughout Western Canada and the three northern territories investigating fires and explosions.
A lot of his work is for insurance companies. “I like to say we get paid by the insurance companies but we work for the evidence.”
But he also does work for municipalities and police departments. In the past he’s been called in to investigate fires tied to homicides or suspicious deaths.
He will often work a parallel investigation alongside a local fire department. Last week Towers was busy investigating an injury fire in Red Deer, working parallel to the city’s Emergency Services. Recently he was called in by police to investigate two fires in Lacombe.
He can’t talk about the details as investigations often end up in court and are confidential.
In 2009, Towers left his 13-year job with the City of Red Deer Emergency Services Department’s fire prevention office to start his business.
Towers, whose father was once fire chief for Red Deer County, took his first fire investigation course in 1986. When he was with the city, he became a safety codes officer and was certified as a fire investigator. He also became certified as a forensic photographer.
The job of fire and explosive investigation is all scientifically based, said Towers, 54.
It’s a constantly evolving process that has changed a lot, even in the last few years, he said. All fires have to be investigated using a systematic approach. The process involves data collection, examining the scene, interviewing witnesses, photography, understanding fire dynamics, what type of loss is it.
“And once we’ve collected all the data then we have to analyze that data. … Then you have to build some theories as to why it happened.”
There are always multiple theories, “You just can’t base it on one thing otherwise you’re in a lot of trouble.”
“Then you come up with some potential causes. Then you rule those out, and then your conclusion is your final opinion about exactly what happened.
“Everything is all fact-driven now. You can’t say it is so because I say it is so.”
There are international standards for fire and explosion investigations, and a court-sanctioned guide, which is a “living document” updated every three years.
There are also standards be a fire investigator.
Preservation of evidence is very important. Towers said that in the example of a vehicle fire, and where a car company may also want to investigate, the vehicle is actually wrapped and stored in a secure location until all the parties can get together to do a parallel investigation.
“Your mind’s always going.”
Tower’s business includes staff with different types of expertise. For example, he has someone who can conduct polygraph tests and a certified canine accelerant detection unit. He has electrical and mechanical engineers examine evidence to help determine a fire cause. This could be in the case where a refrigerator electrical system may have failed, for example.
“One thing you shouldn’t be doing is determining the cause while you’re still in your coveralls and your work boots because you’ve still got to analyze all that data.”
Towers said he has been busy investigating fires every day since the summer.
At the end of last week he was headed off to Northern Alberta to examine a fire scene.