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May 06, 2004
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Recording fire damage and arson evidence

Photography plays a critical role in the investigation of fire and arson. By helping to reconstruct the incident, it tells a story and ultimately preserves a perishable scene. Not only do they document critical evidence but they also offer advantages no other type of evidence can provide, like helping investigators acquire important warrants. And when taken correctly, accurately and without distortion, photographs can serve as key evidence in a court of law.

"The photos make it easier for us to explain to the jury exactly what we''ve seen. We''re trying to put them right at the scene. . ."

Guiding Principles
In order to produce these accurate, undistorted images, there are a few guiding principles you must follow to document a fire scene:

Work your way to the scene. Take photographs that help establish where the fire scene is located. Document the property from multiple perspectives and varying distances (e.g. photos of the front, side and back of a structure). Start with distant shots, then move in closer to capture mid-distances, and finally move in even closer to record the close-up images - any evidence of forced entry, broken locks, windows, doors, etc. Work your way into the scene. From your first step, begin taking photographs. Again document each room from multiple perspectives and varying distances. This photographic process should also be done during tear down. In doing this, your photos will ultimately give investigators the ability to recreate the structure''s floor plans.

Take photos within the scene. In addition to recording the actual evidence, you also want to photograph the location of the evidence - this can be as important as the evidence itself. " . . .people say that everything is destroyed in a fire but that''s not true. When you work a criminal fire scene, a fire that was intentionally set, you look for evidence the fire created . . .."

Four Types of Photos There are four types of photographs that officials should use that will help assist in any fire investigation:

Photos prior to the fire - Obtain photos of the structure prior to the fire. These can be useful in analyzing where the fire may have started, how the fire spread, and other important information. You can access these from a number of sources, such as architectural firms, real estate brokers, news media files, or even the library. Photos during the fire - If you are present during fire suppression activities, you should take photos of the burning structure, witnesses and bystanders. Images of the burning structure may provide clues as to the cause of the fire, point of origin, or type of accelerates used. In cases involving arson, the arsonist often stays to watch the structure burn. If the same witness turns up in photos from other fire scenes, you may have already identified a suspect. Photos after the fire - Once the blaze has been extinguished - the late working stage - photograph the entire scene, again, from multiple perspectives and varying distances. Be sure to document details from the interior and exterior of the scene. Photos at tear down - Record investigation and tear down procedures. Photography is the best way to prove correct evidence gathering procedures were used during the investigation, and that the evidence was not tainted during the process.

Document in close-up, any small evidence like tool marks or evidence of forced entry and other vandalism. Document evidence of accelerant use like melted plastic bottles, candle wax, etc. When documenting the interior or exterior of the scene, document suspected points of origin, including heat flow and accelerant patterns, and heat producing elements. Document all utilities including water, electric, gas, fuse boxes and circuit breaker boards in addition to smoke detectors, fire and burglar alarms. Although a fire may appear suspicious, it may have started accidentally through faulty wiring or other causes. Evidence in your photos may lead to this conclusion. Document appliances, furniture, and small evidence like glass samples or light bulbs. Be sure to use caution because some items can tell so much but are extremely fragile. So, as with all crime scenes, photograph the item first, then remove it, that way you avoid inadvertently disrupting or destroying an important piece of evidence. Document key evidence items during search and clean-up activities: (a) Record the discovery of the evidence; (b) Record the examination of the evidence; (c) Record the removal of the evidence.

"Many times, things we missed in the heat of the investigation are only obvious in retrospect . . ."

- Arson Investigator Ed Jooss

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