Investigation of fires and explosions

Coroners in Tasmania have the authority to investigate any fire or explosion, even if no death has occurred. The jurisdiction to investigate covers any fire or explosion that happens in Tasmania as long as the coroner believes it is desirable to conduct an investigation. There is no time limit set for such an investigation, so in theory a fire that occurred many decades ago could still be investigated today. As with the investigation of deaths, coroners play an active role in directing the investigation: defining the relevant issues, calling for expert opinions and determining how the investigation is to proceed. In practice, coroners in Tasmania rarely investigate fires or explosions without a related death. For the most part, investigations into fires and explosions are conducted in the same way as investigations into deaths. The legislative framework for the investigation of fires and explosions is located in Part 6 of the Act and in Part 3 of the Rules.

The aim of an investigation into a fire or explosion is to make all the “findings” set out in s 45(1)(a-c) of the Act:

A coroner investigating a fire or an explosion must find if possible –

  1. the cause and origin of the fire or explosion; and
  2. the circumstances in which the fire or explosion occurred; and
  3. the identity of any person who contributed to the cause of the fire or explosion.

Section 45(2) also gives the coroner the power to make comments or recommendations in their findings on any matter connected with the fire or explosion including public health or safety or the administration of justice. The coroner uses this power to review safety procedures, responses, training and other factors which may have contributed to or prevented the fire or explosion occurring. The recommendations made are aimed at preventing similar events in the future and / or mitigating the damage caused if they do occur.

An investigation into a fire or explosion is very similar to an investigation into a death. The type of evidence gathered is necessarily different, but the process of gathering physical evidence, documents and witness statements is usually the same. A key difference is the involvement of the Tasmania Fire Service (TFS), as they conduct their own investigations. The police still forward an investigation file to the coroners’ office and the coroner calls for additional information, which is then added, and the file becomes the coronial record.

TFS does not have a specific coronial unit. TFS officers attend all fires and explosions, and additional staff are tasked to attend and provide support as required. When TFS attend the scene of a fire, an incident controller / crew leader examines the scene to establish the cause and origin of the fire. These senior officers also conduct a risk assessment to ensure the health and safety of TFS staff, volunteers and members of the public. TFS also notify Tasmania Police of the fire. If the incident controller / crew leader is unable to determine the cause and origin of the fire, a fire investigation officer (FIO) will attend the scene to assist. FIOs are called to attend initially in the case of serious incidents.

Specialised staff and staff from other organisations are called in if required (such as qualified electrical inspectors and wildfire-qualified investigators). TFS personnel record observations, collect witness statements, take photographs and collect other evidence to support the Fire Investigation Report. In the case of an explosion caused by flammable materials such as petrol, the same investigation procedures apply as for a fire. In the case of an explosion caused by a bomb, clandestine drug-lab or similar, the investigation is handled by Tasmania Police with assistance from TFS as required. In the case of a suspected crime or other police-related matter, evidence and control of the scene is transferred to Tasmania Police once they arrive and the TFS investigation officers have gathered the information they require.

The coroner does not usually become involved in the investigation of fires and explosions until some time after the incident has occurred and the damage has been assessed. If a coroner investigates a fire or explosion, the Fire Investigation Report is forwarded to the coroners’ office. Members of TFS may also be requested to provide further statements, or to give expert evidence and opinions at an inquest.

The coroner has many of the same powers during the investigation of a fire or explosion as they do during the investigation of a death. These include the power to restrict access to a place (s 49), power to enter a place and inspect it and anything in it (s 59(1)(a)), power to take a copy of any relevant document (s 59(1)(b)) and power to take possession of an article, substance or thing (s 59(1)(c)).

If the coroner has the jurisdiction to investigate a fire or explosion, they may also conduct an inquest (s 43).

Any person with a ‘sufficient interest’ can apply to the coroner and request that they investigate a fire or explosion.

For more information, refer to Key Elements in the Process: Applications.