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Fire and Electrical Hazards from ‘Smart’, Wireless, PLC, and Digital Utility Meters – Part 1
PDF of full report
In the last twelve+ years, utility companies have launched major roll-outs of electronic digital meters across the United States and globally for electric, natural gas, and water service. These meters include wireless transmitting Smart or AMI Meters, AMR meters and ERTs, and powerline communication (PLC, BPL) meters.
Due to meter design and function, these digital meters can malfunction in several ways. Electric digital meters can allow surges and overvoltage to flow into buildings which can burn wiring and destroy appliances and electronics. They can interfere with arc and ground fault circuit interrupters. Meters have exploded and have caused fires, and they have likely contributed to the severity of other fires. Some of the fires have resulted in the deaths of people and their pets. Water and gas AMI/AMR/digital meters pose additional hazards.
These problems are known to the industry, regulatory commissions, some fire officials, the news media, and insurance companies, and were the subject of a dispute before the National Labor Relations Board. This paper is on known problems with meters used in the U.S. and Canada, but electrical problems and fires are occurring internationally.
Australia, Daily Telegraph, March 1, 2012
The state’s electrical union fears someone will have to die before safety concerns about controversial smart meters are addressed. The Electrical Trades Union has repeated demands to suspend the rollout until power companies commit to mounting all meters on flame-resistant boards. But the Government and suppliers are adamant the units aren’t a fire risk and are safer than those they replaced. Energy Safe Victoria is investigating claims power surges are causing smart meters to explode.1
“Our experience has shown that these issues are systemic in the industry and we are committed to delivering solutions that help our customers to overcome these challenges,” said Sensus President Randy Bays in 2014.2 Sensus manufacturers Smart Meters.
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), 2012:3
We are seeing a spate of reports from around the United States—and indeed around the world—of fires believed to have been caused by smart meters that were faulty, incorrectly installed, or connected to circuits where there were unfortunate and unforeseen effects. This appears to be not just a matter of freak incidents that may or may not have taken place here or there… Obviously all companies with smart meter programs, and all their suppliers and sub-contractors, are going to have to take a close look at the issue of fire hazards. This is just the beginning of a difficult story. Companies installing smart meters already have run into a lot of consumer push-back because of concerns about privacy, security, and–sometimes–higher rather lower electricity costs. The last thing the smart grid needs is meters causing fires.
Utility companies and regulatory commissions have publicly denied these problems. Fire and electrical risks have not been disclosed to the public. In California, the California Public Utilities Commission refused to release results of a 2013 preliminary investigation on Smart Meter fires and declined to investigate further. California fire officials have yet to launch a public investigation despite continuing problems.
These electrical problems (with page numbers) include:
- Lack of surge protection 3
- No direct path to ground 3
- National Electrical Code 240 violation 9
- No Protective Device Coordination Study 10
- “Catastrophic failure” – a new meter failure mode 11
- Overheating 12
- Inferior materials 12
- Burned meter-to-meter-box contacts 13
- Faulty remote disconnect switch 14
- Arcing 14, 17
- Circuit boards in electric meters 16
- Melting solder can create new circuit board pathways 17
- Meters don’t fit sockets 17
- Thinner blades 17
- Pitting 17
- Malfunctioning temperature alarms and sensors 19
- Switching mode power supply (SMPS) surges and appliance damage 19
- RF signal and SMPS transients routed onto building wiring 20
- Interference with AFCIs/GFCIs 21
- Moisture, heat, and flammable Lithium batteries 22
- Risks from AMI/AMR water meters 23
- UL certification of meter models that cause fires 23
- Flawed FCC requirements and testing 24
- Inadequate worker qualifications and training, poor installation quality 25
- Vulnerability to hacking 27
- Danger due to meter location 28
- Vibration and heat in building materials from RF emissions 29
- Accelerated corrosion 29
- Violation of FCC Grants of Equipment Authorization 29
- Removal of meters from fire scenes 30
- Hampered investigations 30
- Non-specific and inadequate fire coding 33
- Punished whistleblowers – Bobby Reed, Don Baker, Patrick Wrigley 33
- Problems undercounted due to lack of proper investigation 33
- Elimination of monthly inspections by meter readers 34
- Increasing terpenes in surrounding trees due to stress 34
- Inaction from fire safety administrators 34
- Inaction from regulatory agencies; exemptions and loopholes 36
- News media censorship and failure to investigate 37
- Regulatory commission defense of Smart Meter program 37
- Unsafe time-of-use rates 41
- Utility company lack of transparency and misinformation 41
- Insurance industry silence 43
In the U.S., common names for these meters include Smart, AMI (advanced metering infrastructure), AMR (automated meter reading), PLC (powerline communication), BPL (broadband over powerline), and ERT (encoder receiver transmitter). I use “Smart” or “digital” to describe these meters. Common electric meter brands used in California by investor owned utilities (IOUs) and municipal utility districts are Landis & Gyr, GE/Aclara (Aclara acquired GE’s electric meter division in 2015), and Itron.
Surges, surge protection, and grounding
Surges in the electrical current flowing through power lines can be caused by lightning strikes, power lines touching (eg. during windstorms, from falling branches, or when a pole is knocked down), malfunctioning transformers or other electrical equipment, disconnection and reconnection of power, arcing, fires on the lines, momentary connection losses, and other electrical problems.
Cyber-security expert Cynthia Ayres also told the Michigan legislature:
It should be noted that massive surges (with much greater effects than weather related or other types of flow interruptions) are associated with severe space weather (geomagnetic storms caused by coronal mass ejections from the sun) and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) associated with high–altitude nuclear explosions – both of which have been known to cause arching [sic] and fires.4
Without protection, surges can flow into a building, destroying wiring and appliances, and start a fire. This can happen in seconds.
Detroit, March 17, 2017:
A 95-year-old grandmother died this week after she was rushed to the hospital after power was restored to the family’s home and a surge started a fire.
Reginald Hollman said after last week’s powerful storm, his family home lost power. When power was restored, he said a surge rushed through home, starting a massive fire.5
Traditional analog electromechanical electric meters have a ground connection as well as surge protection which is based on spark-gap technology (like a spark plug).6 The spark gap functions like a circuit breaker and protects the house from surges and overvoltage conditions. The analog electric meter clips to a pair of semi-circular metal rings that is connected to the meter box. These are connected to a neutral wire, then to a grounding rod which is in the ground. Spark gap technology allows current that exceeds a set threshold – generally 450 volts — to “jump the gap”, and the voltage is conducted to the ground. This spares the meter, the building, the building’s wiring, and the plugged-in electronics from damage and fire. One engineer told me that a particular analog meter model would entirely disconnect power to the house if a surge was present and reset on the next half-cycle (within a few milliseconds) once the surge was gone.
The 1973 patent7 for an overvoltage surge arrestor for GE meters by Ansell Palmer is an example of this technology.
Electric Power Research Institute, 2010:
Electromechanical meters had no digital circuitry. They utilized spark-gap to control the location of arc-over and to dissipate the energy of typical voltage events. As a result, they were generally immune to standard surge events. This nature is evidenced in the section of ANSI C12.1 that specifies voltage surge testing, but allows that ‘This test may be omitted for electromechanical meters and registers.”8
This sophisticated spark-gap technology has worked for decades, protecting buildings from overvoltage conditions. Even with lightning strikes, analog meters with this technology have survived and protected their buildings. And this technology works repeatedly without damage to the meter, because there are no electronic components to wear out. In the case of a home that survived two lightning strikes (up to 30 million volts), the home and the meter were fine, because the surge went to ground.
New Smart/AMI/AMR/digital meters do not have this surge protection and do not have a connection to the ground.9 See Appendix A photos comparing the back of an analog meter with the back of an AMI meter.
Instead, meter manufacturers put a varistor – a voltage dependent resistor, or variable resistor — on the digital meter circuit board.
All electronics have varistors. When there is an increase in voltage, the varistor will increase the resistance of the circuit to try to dampen the amount of voltage going across the lead. Voltage exceeding the varistor’s limit (300-350 volts) will cause the varistor to explode, ruining the circuit board and the appliance or electronic equipment.
However, with a Smart/digital meter, when the varistor blows out, the current from the utility pole, including high voltage current, will flow directly into the building if any appliances or electronics are drawing power, and many of today’s electronics and appliances are always on. The results can be burned wiring, damaged electronics and equipment, including well pumps, and fires.
“Varistors are useful for short duration protection in case of high transient voltage surges in the order of 1-1000 microseconds. They are however not suited to handle sustained surges. If a transient pulse energy in joules (J) is too high and significantly exceeds the absolute maximum ratings, they can melt, burn or explode.”10
Electrical engineer William Bathgate:
This small electronic part cannot withstand more than a 300 Volts AC surge. The part will explode when a line voltage surge exceeds this limit, such as when a tree branch touches the high voltage lines or lightning strike occurs nearby. Once this Varistor explosion has occurred it permits high voltage transfer to the other circuit board components and the circuit board substrate. This results in the AMI meter literally exploding from the meter socket or in a severe melting of the plastic components, likely leading to a fire and/or severe home damage. Most customers that comment when this occurs say they hear a load pop or a boom, followed by lights flickering, and followed by arcing at the meter housing. This is not how a circuit board should be protected…There is no sound electronic engineering firm that would permit 240 volts AC to short circuit across the circuit boards due to a component failure such as a Varistor. This is extremely dangerous. Once the progression of the subsequent short circuit begins the line transformer will apply up to 2,000 Amps to the meter housing until either the feed lines to the home disintegrate and vaporize or the transformer line breaker/fuse trips out after 50 seconds. By this time the damage is so extensive it is jeopardizing human and animal life. No such condition is possible from an Analog Meter.11
If a tree or branch falls across the lines and causes a high voltage line to contact a lower voltage utility line, much higher voltages can flow down the line into a building. And lightning strikes are about 30 million volts.
Electric meter testing company TESCO, 2015: 12
“Electronic meters fail as do electromechanical meters but differently.”
New failure modes include “Power supply damage due to lightning surges and other causes”.
The fire department cannot get there in time once this chain of events starts because it happens so fast.
Repeated surges up to the meter varistor’s maximum threshold will weaken the varistor and eventually destroy it, also allowing unregulated current to flow into the building.
Fire Chief Duane Roddy testified to the Michigan House Energy Committee in 2017 that he watched a Smart Meter ignite and arc at his home from a surge.13 The electricity kept flowing and arcing, melting the lines to his house, and didn’t stop until the transformer on the pole blew, and then the fuse on the pole finally tripped. In Pacific Grove, California, PG&E crews shut off power to repair a transformer. When they re-connected the power, they heard a popping sound, and a nearby building’s Smart Meter and panel caught fire.14
This situation is similar to the 60 cent bolt that fails and brings down an airplane
Circuit breakers inside a house or building do not protect from outside electrical problems or incoming surges from the power lines. If an overage comes from the street or from the meter, the building’s circuit breakers will not trip. Circuit breakers in a building only protect from inside electrical problems.
When a varistor explodes, it makes a popping sound.
Branches and trees fell on lines in the California North Bay fires, causing contact between higher voltage and lower voltage lines. Lines caught fire from the high voltage current. This high voltage current was flowing into homes, blowing out the varistors. Automatic restarters kept re-energizing the lines, keeping this high voltage current flowing and also sending repeated surges down lines into buildings, intensifying the problem – a particular problem with PG&E’s system. Smart Meters could have malfunctioned in very significant numbers and actually caused many of the building fires.
East Palo Alto, Stockton, Summerland, Ontario, and Forest, Ontario are a few incidents when many Smart Meters failed simultaneously and spectacularly due to a surge.
Stockton, March 30, 2015:
The smart meters were unable to handle the surge and exploded. Some of the explosions were serious, others were not.
…Stockton fire Capt. Bryan Carr with Engine 6, one of several fire crews dispatched Monday morning as dozens of electric customers began reporting explosions, smoke or the smell of burning wires, described the scene as “unreal” when his engine pulled onto Fairbury Lane, a residential street in southeast Stockton… His best estimate was that 50 or 60 homes had some type of significant electrical damage.15
(GE and Landis & Gyr Smart Meters)
Summerland, British Columbia, Nov. 26, 2014:
69 Smart Meters damaged, and some blew off buildings.16
(Itron Smart Meters)
Forest, Ontario, Nov. 7, 2013:
60-70 Smart Meters explode due to winds at Fairview Court Apartments.
Don Plowright, who lives with his wife in the Fairview Court Apartments, says the meters sustained a lot of damage. “Some of them blew right off and hit one of the windows,” he remarks. “Ours was all blackened. The people next to us, the meter was blown right off and the wires were sticking out.”
…Apparently, this was a totally new experience for Hydro One crews. ‘They were really surprised. They said that they’d never had anything like this happen before…’
Hydro One employee Ron Core, one of the crew members onsite, says the surge was caused when a 16,000 volt line landed on a 2,000 volt line during the high winds last Thursday, blowing one transformer and destroying the Smart Meters.
… When [the meters] were installed at his former residence, Plowright says, “The guy that looked after that say they’re not very good. Most of the old ones were made in Canada. These are made in China and they’re not made to stand up to real rough weather. He didn’t think much of them.” The meters are manufactured by a company called Landis + Gyr…17
East Palo Alto, Aug. 25, 2011:
When Pacific Gas and Electric turned the power back on, the surge blew up a number of smart meters in homes. More than 80 fires were reported, and a number of home appliances were damaged. Homes that did not yet have the smart meters installed reported no problem.18
Television sets and lights popped and and blew out in two East Palo Alto neighborhoods after a power surge Thursday night..19
…The sustained electrical surge to more than 200 East Palo Alto homes and businesses lasted for about one hour and 20 minutes, until a PG&E crew shut off the power, according to a Menlo Park Fire Protection District incident report… Palo Alto utilities spokeswoman Debbie Katz said that surges have not burned out the city’s analog meters…. “The idea with SmartMeters is to make the customers’ and the utility’s life better, but this is a good example of how sometimes the old way is the good way,” Katz said.20
(GE and Landis & Gyr Smart Meters)
Mindy Spatt, communications director of The Utility Reform Network (TURN):
In the collective memory of TURN, we have not seen similar incidents with analog meters.21
Along with other utility companies in California, Pacific Gas and Electric instituted a Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) policy during extreme fire danger conditions to de-energize both transmission and distribution lines. PG&E in particular began activating this with little advance warning to officials of affected communities which caused problems.22 However, re-energizing electrical lines after power shut-offs will cause power surges, and these surges will hit all the Smart Meters in the area. No one is talking about this risk or the potential impact on well pumps and water availability.
National Electrical Code violation
National Electrical Code Section 240.4:
240.4 Protection of Conductors. Conductors, other than flexible cords, flexible cables, and fixture wires, shall be protected against overcurrent in accordance with their ampacities specified in 310.15, unless otherwise permitted or required in 240.4(A) through (G)23
All electrical components must be protected by a circuit breaker.
The NEC also says:
Article 230 Services
VII. Service Equipment – Overcurrent Protection
230.90 Where Required. Each ungrounded service conductor shall have overload protection.
Article 240 Overcurrent Protection
240.15 Ungrounded Conductors.
(A) Overcurrent Device Required. A fuse or an overcurrent trip unit of a circuit breaker shall be connected in series with each ungrounded conductor. A combination of a current transformer and overcurrent relay shall be considered equivalent to an overcurrent trip unit.24
Analog meters are grounded; they are directly connected to the ground via spark-gap technology, protected from surges. Smart/digital meters are not grounded.
Utility companies were granted an exemption from 240.4 when they were using analog meters, not electronic devices. Now however, utility companies have replaced analog meters with electronic Smart/digital meters and haven’t made any provision for that change by installing a circuit breaker. When there’s a surge, it goes directly to the Smart/digital meter’s circuit board with potentially catastrophic results.
Since utility companies changed the nature of the meter, did not put in a circuit breaker, and have not revised the situation with the regulating body, they could be found in violation of the terms of the National Electrical Code exemption.
Electrical Engineer Tony Simmons:25
I am a retired Electrical Engineer licensed in Nevada and California. I have 11 years’ experience in electric utility meter operations ..The problem is meters and sockets are NOT known to be properly protected with the correct fuse.
All electrical equipment is expected to fail eventually. The question is not “does it create a hazard If it fails”; the question is “does it create a hazard when it fails”. The answer depends on the rating of the fuse protecting the meter and socket.
The first instruction [below] is to use fuses. The second instruction is to not use the meter (as) a protective device – don’t rely on the remote switch as a safety feature.
(from the [Itron] manual)
“All voltage paths (measurement and auxiliary) must be fused.
Do not use any meter functions or features for primary protection purposes.
Do not install the meter where failure of the device could cause death, injury or release sufficient energy to start a fire.”
… The more practical solution is use the correct fuse to protect the meter and socket as ITRON indirectly instructs. This is where the electric utility industry went wrong. Big time.
If the utilities were required to install a circuit breaker outside the meter — between meter and building – the costs would have been substantial, and utility companies likely wouldn’t have been able to make their business cases to the state regulatory commissions. In addition, the public would have raised safety questions about the new meters versus the analog meters, and refused to fund them.
In addition, master disconnect switches for buildings are often located next to electric meters. A meter fire makes it impossible for emergency responders to access the switch and turn off the electricity to a building. Electricity has to be disconnected at the pole by the utility company, resulting in a dangerous delay. This is another serious safety problem that is not addressed in state and local electrical codes.
No Protective Device Coordination Study
Electrical engineer Tony Simmons:26
The utilities failed to perform the industry standard Protective Device Coordination Study. This study is also called the Short Circuit Coordination Study or mostly commonly, the coordination study.
Coordinated Power Engineering Inc.27
A Short Circuit and Coordination Study is critical for the safe, efficient, and economical operation of any electrical distribution system. A Short Circuit Study will help to ensure that personnel and equipment are protected by establishing proper interrupting ratings. When an electrical fault exceeds the interrupting rating of the protective device, the consequences can be devastating, including injury, damaged electrical equipment, and costly downtime. A Coordination Study maximizes power system selectivity by isolating faults to the nearest protective device, as well as helping to avoid nuisance operations that are due to transformer inrush or motor starting operations.
[National Fire Protection Association] NFPA 70B maintains that a Short Circuit and Coordination Study is a very important, yet sometimes overlooked step after the initial design and before the implementation of an electrical distribution system. The [National Electrical Code] NEC addresses the importance of this type of study in articles 110-9, 110-10, 240, and 517.17. It is clear that a third-party, independent study performed during/after the equipment submittal process, can prove to be invaluable. A Short Circuit and Coordination Study serves to incorporate all the system changes that come about after the initial design.
Smart and digital meters were not a part of the initial electrical power system design.
New failure mode – “catastrophic” failure
Electric Power Research Institute:
The average person may have experienced a broken-down car, a worn-out appliance, or a piece of electrical equipment that died in a lightening[sp] storm, but most don’t likely recall their electricity meter ever failing. Such is the reliable legacy of the electromechanical meter.
By anyone’s assessment, traditional electromechanical meters are an amazing piece of engineering work. Refined over a hundred years, the design of a standard residential electricity meter became an impressive combination of economy, accuracy, durability, and simplicity.28
According to industry experts, Smart/digital meters are subject to new failure modes, One of these new failure modes is catastrophic failure. Analog electromechanical meters do not have this failure mode.
From a presentation by TESCO in 2015:
Electronic Meters – new failure modes require new testing and inspection methods
Electronic meters fail as do electromechanical meters but differently.
– Their overall life expectancy is not nearly the same
– Failure modes include drift (unexpected)
– Failure modes include catastrophic (expected)
– Power supply damage due to lightning surges and other causes…”29
The Saskatchewan government launched an investigation after a series of Smart Meter fires. “Eight meters failed catastrophically, melting or burning, and in some cases damaging the sides of houses.”30 The report stated:
A catastrophic failure has been defined by the consultants and industry as a meter which has burnt, melted, blackened, caught fire, arced, sparked, or exploded/blown from the premises.31
Overheating, inferior materials
Digital/Smart meters have electronics inside which create heat. Analog meters do not have electronic components which generate heat.
“The electronics inside smart meters typically employ metal-oxide varistors (MOVs) for overvoltage surge protection. The problem arises from the lack of the heavy heat sinking capacity of the MOVs. This is needed in order to avoid failure due to overheating when they are energized. The physical construction of the smart meters does not allow for the heat generated by the energized MOVs to escape into the environment as there are few metal parts to act as a heat sink. Under the right conditions of over-voltage and line impedance, it may be possible to cause the MOV to burst into flames.32 The Fire Marshal’s report33from Ontario, Canada noted overheating and fires associated with MOVs.”34
Norman Lambe, a California insurance adjuster, has investigated fire-related Smart Meter incidents. In 2015, he said that overheating is a primary cause of these fires. He said the meters spark and make too much heat when they operate, and the materials within the meters are flammable in the right heat conditions.35
“Today’s meters are light. The old ones were heavy and dissipated heat a lot better, actually,” said Ken Dimpfl, manager of meter engineering with American Electric Power (AEP), while discussing temperature data analytics at Utility Analytics Week in New Orleans.36
The UK East Sussex Fire Service reports: “[T]he amount of current being drawn is an important factor, since the greater the current, the higher the risk of resistance heating in a poor connection.”37
Burned meter-to-meter-box connections
Engineer William Bathgate’s Smart Meter was installed in 2015. By 2017, due to network malfunctions, the utility company wasn’t receiving the meter’s wireless data transmissions, so they started sending him estimated bills. He decided to opt-out.
When the AMI meter was removed. I discovered that the one set of contacts had all burned up from excessive heat.
This was a new meter box in 2015 and in use for about 2 years. It could have easily led to a meter fire without warning. If I had not changed my meter, I would never have known there was a problem. How many other meter boxes are at risk with the same conditions today? The only way we will know is when we begin to see more meter fires. Unfortunately once a fire begins at the meter contacts all evidence of the root cause are near impossible to determine. The utility concludes without any evidence that the meter fire occurred due to customer wiring. Had I known that placing an AMI meter on my home would lead to burned contacts on my home, I would never have permitted its installation.38
Continued in Part 2
2 http://globalnews.ca/news/1489707/manufacturer-defends-smart-meters-after-fires/ August 3, 2014, citing Sensus press release
4 Testimony to Michigan House Energy Committee March 7, 2017
5 http://www.fox2detroit.com/news/local-news/242346844-story link no longer works,
“Accuracy of Digital Electricity Meters”, Electric Power Research Institute, May 2010, p.7
p. 5-6, Evaluation of the Aclara I-210+C AMI Meter, William Bathgate, May 30, 2018
(Aclara purchased GE AMI division)
Testimony of William Bathgate, 8/29/17, Michigan Public Service Commission
12 Tom Lawton at 2015 conference sponsored by the Edison Electric Institute (EEI). http://web.archive.org/web/20151123003953/http://www.slideshare.net/bravenna/site-verification-and-its-role-in-asset-management http://www.eei.org/about/meetings/Meeting_Documents/FINAL – Metering Agenda-LaJolla.pdf
14 Incident report, January 22, 2012; https://cedarstreettimes.com/weekend-fire-puts-favaloros-out-of-commission/
15CBS 13 http://scoopfeed.net/2015/04/05/stockton-ca-smart-meters-explode-after-truck-causes-power-surge/ link no longer works
17 Forest Standard, November 7, 2013 (emphasis added)
18 CBS 13 http://scoopfeed.net/2015/04/05/stockton-ca-smart-meters-explode-after-truck-causes-power-surge/ (emphasis added) link no longer works
22 California Department of Public Health’s county and city health officers heard a presentation June 6, 2019. It discussed the problems with PSPS as well as PG&E specific problems, which include PG&E’s practice of sending public relations people to talk to local officials when there is a problem.
https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CCLHO/Pages/CCLHOBoardofDirectors.aspx June 6, 2019
23 National Electrical Code (2008)
28 “Accuracy of Digital Electricity Meters”, Electric Power Research Institute, May 2010
29 Slide from presentation by TESCO representative Tom Lawton at 2015 conference sponsored by the Edison Electric Institute (EEI). TESCO (The Eastern Specialty Company) is an electric meter testing equipment and services company. (emphasis added)
http://web.archive.org/web/20151123003953/http://www.slideshare.net/bravenna/site-verification-and-its-role-in-asset-management http://www.eei.org/about/meetings/Meeting_Documents/FINAL – Metering Agenda-LaJolla.pdf
CIC Smart Meter Review Makes Recommendations to Improve Crown Procurement
The head of the provincial utility SaskPower resigned after these reports were released.
“Utility “Smart Meters’”, Ontario Fire Marshall Armen Kassabian, June 15, 2012
37 Investigation Report into: Fires Originating in Electrical Intakes, Mark Hobbs, Lead Fire Investigation Officer, East Sussex Fire & Rescue Service, UK, July 2010