Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Fire deaths

One category of death that often causes interpretative problems for forensic pathologists is the fire death.

A useful summary of the issues raised by such deaths has been recently published, highlighting the need to establish the deceased's identity and, in the pathological assessment of the body, to determine whether the deceased was alive at the time of the conflagration, why they could not extract themselves from the fire, and what the cause (and manner) of death appears to be.

In England and Wales, fire deaths are often investigated by coroner's pathologists with little (or no) training in forensic pathology; the approach taken in some cases rests on the assumption that there are no attendant suspicious circumstances, and it is only when the post mortem blood carboxyhaemoglobin level is returned from the laboratory as zero % that a review of the post mortem findings indicates some other cause of death than 'exposure to fire smoke and fumes'.

Whether this situation would occur in jurisdictions in which forensic pathologists perform all such post mortem examinations is unclear, but it behoves the autopsy-performing pathologist to consider the possibility that their 'fire death' is not related to exposure to the products of fire but is, in fact, a concealed homicide, and that the pathological assessment - and documentation of the findings - is capable of scrutiny should the 'worst-case scenario' unfold later in the course of the investigation.