FIRE SCENE PHOTOGRAPHY AND PHOTO ANALYSIS
THE MOST USEFUL clues to the origin and cause of a fire—other than on-site observation and excavation—are the photographs of the fire scene that the fire investigator either takes himself or that are given to him. The contents of photographs are vital yet are often overlooked. Let’s examine the two aspects of fire scene photography: (1) taking photographs at the fire scene and (2) analyzing fire scene photographs.
TAKING PHOTOGRAPHS OF THE FIRE SCENE
If we were standing outside a football stadium and wanted to get a complete picture of the whole, we would place ourselves at a treasonable distance for perspective and visibility and then walk around the entire structure until we had completed a 360-degree circumnavigation of the whole.
Similarly, if we wanted to get a complete picture of the inside, we would position ourselves in the middle of the stadium, pivot 360 degrees, and—looking up, down, and around as we turned —continue until we had returned to our starting point.
Successful and comprehensive fire scene photography hinges on the fire investigator’s ability to “think 360 degrees.” This has two common-sense applications relative to fire scene photography:
- Think 360 degrees from the outside looking in.
- Think 360 degrees from the inside looking out.
Photographing exteriors—from the outside looking in. Approach the fire scene from a distance and photograph an “establishing shot.” This should be taken “head on” to document the size, shape, location and, if possible, the address of the structure. This is your “north, zero degrees”—your starting point. Then walk around the edifice, photographing every aspect of the exterior, including overhead wiring, electrical outside service, gas meter, propane tanks, means of entrance and egress, evidence of criminal activity (discarded gas containers, forced entry), and all areas of burn damage to the exterior that either originated or extended there, until you are back to where you started at north 360 degrees.
Photographing interiors—from the in- side looking out. As you enter the structure, go from the area of least damage to the area of greatest damage, which is usually the point of origin of the fire. Although it may seem wasteful, it is advisable to photograph areas that have experienced no burning at all. In fires with the potential to result in either criminal or civil litigation, embarrassing questions may be asked about whether or not you examined (and eliminated) other possible causes of the fire. Therefore it’s wise to photograph gas and electric meters, hot water heaters, furnaces, small and large appliances, and other possible sources of ignition. Your photograph of a perfectly clean gas clothes dryer not only will clear that product in a product liability case that names it as a cause, but it also will verify your examination of this utility when you are testifying in court.
The sequence of your interior “elimination” photographs—photos taken to eliminate areas or objects as points of origin of the fire—should be as logical as possible. Move with your camera through the entrance foyer, into the living room, down into the basement; up the stairs to the second floor; down the second floor hallway to the master bedroom; and so on, taking as few photographs as necessary to cover as wide an area of elimination as possible.
As you get nearer to the area of greatest burn damage, photograph the approaches to and exits from the room where you determine the point of origin to be. Those who will later be doing a fire analysis from your pictures will want more than just your word as to whether the fire did or did not burn through the wall, ceiling, flooring, or doors. A hole in the wall can come from one of two sides; both sides of any communicating burn pattern should be photographed.
Let’s say that we are investigating a fire that began in an electric toaster on the counter in the kitchen. Debris is everywhere. Before any digging is done, remember the second common-sense rule of fire scene photography: Think 360 degrees from the inside looking out. Stand in the center of the room and envision yourself as the nucleus of a circle. Designate a zero-degree point and rotate your camera around the entire 360-degree circle of the kitchen. Take overlapping shots so that you’ll have reference points and be able to maintain a sequence. For instance, if your first photograph is of a lazy Susan and the left side of the dishwasher, your second photograph, when you rotate your camera to the right, should include enough of the dishwasher so that later on, at your desk, the two photographs together will provide a comprehensive view.
Once you’ve photodocumented the entire room, concentrate on the specific area of origin (the kitchen counter) and the point of origin (the toaster). If you are working for the fire department, you only have to shoot enough pictures to substantiate your findings that a cause is accidental (short-circuit in a power cord or smoking carelessness, for instance), deliberate (arson), or undetermined. If you are working for an attorney, the home owner, or an insurance company, you will also want to take enough pictures to show what the specific cause is (for instance, that the depressed lever on the toaster caused the mechanism to overheat, ignite, and start the fire).
In a product liability case, you must extensively photograph the item alleged to have started the fire. In arson cases, you’ll do the same for burn paths and patterns. Fires started by both products and people may eventually result in litigation. It’s wise to take as many photographs from as many angles as possible, using the most sophisticated equipment available. Instant cameras are the least preferable; their definition is usually blurry and there is very little depth of field. It’s also difficult to reproduce the photographs since there is no negative. A 110 camera is better than an instant camera but not as good as a 35mm one. A 35mm camera with fast film, the appropriate lenses, and an adequate flash will give you good enough photos to document and analyze just about anything.
ANALYZING PHOTOGRAPHS OF THE FIRE SCENE
My first exposure to photo analysis as a specific area of expertise occurred when my husband was hired by the city of Philadelphia to determine the origin and cause of the MOVE fire, in which more than 60 houses burned and 11 people were killed (see “Fire—a Terrorist Weapon,” Fire Engineering, October 1986). During this investigation, we worked with a man who wasn’t a fire investigator but who was able to find things in photographs that the fire experts had missed. He had trained himself to analyze a photograph so well that even if he did not understand the significance of an item or an object, he was able to recognize that the item was there, that it might be relevant, and that it should be brought to the attention of the expert who could interpret what it meant.
He was proof that, like arson investigation, forensic pathology, and forensic photography, photo analysis is a specialty. As fire investigators, we can train our eyes and minds to notice things in photographs that will make it much, much easier to discover the truth of what has occurred. Photo analysis is a discipline that we can bring to any crime or incident scene days, months, or even years after a fire has taken place. It is a skill we can exercise alone at our desks, with our main tools being only photographs, a good deal of patience, and inquisitive minds.
The first case that my husband and I solved by photo analysis was on a claim that a toilet bowl on the second floor of a building had broken, resulting in water seepage through the floor and firstfloor ceiling that damaged more than $80,000 worth of merchandise in the clothing store below. The only damage we saw to substantiate this claim was a small water stain on the ceiling. We pushed through the ceiling panel, stuck our camera into the dark area above the drop ceiling, and rotated the camera, blindly, in a 360-degree panorama of the area above the drop ceiling and below the flooring of the apartment above.
During the course of our photo analysis of tile developed prints we discovered a spider web filled with debris. We took this photograph to an entomologist at die American Museum of Natural History who told us that, based on the amount of debris in the spider web, the web had to be more than one year old; that the web had been made by a Theridiidae spider; and that the web could not possibly have survived the deluge of water claimed by the owners of the clothing store to have damaged their merchandise.
Provided with these facts, we were able to disclose what amounted to insurance fraud and recognized that there was more to be discovered within the frame of a photograph than we had previously thought. We realized that photo analysis, combined with other fields of knowledge, would be useful in solving cases, and that we could formulate some additional procedures and principles to enhance and develop our expertise.
Our first procedure was to relate photo analysis to the fire scene itself. If you ask an origin-and-cause investigator to name the two most important questions to ask at a fire scene, he would probably answer, Who discovered the fire? and Who turned in the fire alarm? In analyzing the photographs of a fire scene, however, the most important question is, What did the scene look like before the fire took place? We ask this question because fire analysis is essentially the art or science of discovering what happened to objects.
In analyzing a fire scene from photographs, a human body is an object; a piece of carpeting is an object; a section of a tree branch… a half a cloud seen through a kitchen window… a cigarette butt… a hole in the floor… and a dismantled electrical outlet… all are objects, and it is our task to determine
- where the objects were located in the room, stmcture, or mechanism before the fire took place;
- where they are now, after the fire, in relationship to each other;
- what the objects are;
- what condition they’re in; and
- what the combination of all the above means—that is, what their physical condition and locations tell us about what happened to diem. If you have enough photographs, you can answer all of these questions through photo analysis.
Beginning at the beginning, we must determine what the fire scene looked like before the fire. Therefore, obtain either a floor plan or schematic or make a schematic of the fire scene based on witness statements as soon as possible. Find out the following from residents or neighbors: What was the shape of the room? Where were the windows and doors? Were there any curtains on the windows? Were there any items blocking egress from the doors? Was there shelving on the walls, and if so, where? Where were the beds in the room? Where was the television set? The stereo and the night stand? Where was the bureau?
The type and condition of the area or object you are examining will determine what additional questions you’ll want to ask to get a better understanding of the surroundings prior to the fire. If the fire took place in a kitchen, you’ll want to know what appliances were there, where they w ere, and w hether or not they were plugged in and, if so, into which outlets. You’ll want to know if extension cords were used and what type. You’ll want to know how many outlets there were in the room, and where they were located. And, of course, you’ll want to know if and where there was a wastebasket in the room—enough fires are caused by careless disposal of smoking materials to make wastebaskets always a concern.
When drawing a schematic of what a fire area looked like, remember to think 360 degrees. Put yourself mentally in the middle of a fire scene, and then turn around in your mind so that you can see every surface, angle, area, and corner of that room.
You can create your schematic from other diagrams, floor plans, and witness statements, and it should include information received from all of your sources: fire departments, police departments, insurance companies, home owners, neighbors, and so forth. It does not have to be drawn to scale. Our goal is to put objects in a room in the right positions and in accurate relation to each other. Writing “not drawn to scale” on the schematic will protect the nondraftsmen among us from being intimidated by ratios, proportions, and the like. Actual sizes and distances can be observed on the photographs themselves. What your schematic should contain, however, is any information about the photographs that will help you in your analysis. This includes the angles from which the photographs were taken; the directions in the room (north, south, east, and west); the names of the objects, if unidentifiable (a melted telephone, for example); the locations of ignition sources (such as an electrical outlet under the cabinet counter); and so forth.
Before you get to the analysis stage, ask yourself if you’ve overlooked any possible sources of information that could help your investigation. Contact die owner of the premises and ask him for photographs not only of the fire scene but of the room as it existed prior to the fire. He may have family pictures in his personal album. Ask for photographs from the insurance agent, the insurance company’s adjuster, the public adjuster, and volunteer firemen. Local newspapers are also a good source of photographs, and they usually have a number of photographs in their photo morgue that may be available. If the case has gone to litigation, the attorneys may have hired experts and fire investigators
with photos of their own that you can obtain, either through professional courtesy or by subpoena.
To keep track of all these photographs, purchase removable labels for identification and notes. Despite an understandable reluctance, learn how to take your evidence out of the envelopes and files in which they are so neatly stored. Use your removable labels to tag each photo with an appropriate mark— be it a code, a description of the photo source in longhand, or a numbering system—indicating on your removable label from which file or envelope the photograph came. Then, make yourself believe that you will be able to put the photographs back in the right places when you are through with them. Toss the photographs into a pile, find a large, empty surface area on which to work— a desk, a bulletin board, or the floor, and get ready for a fascinating exercise in puzzle solving.
As you proceed with your analysis, focus on specific objects within the frame of the photograph. This can be difficult because at a fire scene there is so much devastation and rubble that individual entities can be hard to discern. Furthermore, there may be tremendous variations in graininess, color contrast, and depth of field among the photos themselves. Therefore, train yourself to notice similarities rather than dissimilarities; in the beginning this may take some conscious self-reminders. What matters is that the 3 x 5 black-and-white print and the 8 x 10 color enlargement are both pictures of refrigerators, and that one shows the burn pattern on the appliance with the door open and the other shows it with the door closed.
Now divide your photographs into major categories. Place exterior shots in one pile; photos of uninvolved interior areas in another; and those of the area of origin—of which there should be the most—in a third. If the area of origin spans more than one section of the structure, make as many piles as necessary.
Begin with the exterior photos, positioning them so that you make a 360degree navigation of the structure, as if you were actually walking around the circumference by foot. Interior photos of the room in which the fire did not occur are usually pretty sparse; put those in any order you want, but keep them together so that they don’t get in the way of the relevant photos. Then position your interior shots of the fire room to create a comprehensive, 360degree composite panorama of the fire scene. This will give you an understanding of exactly where an object is in relation to other objects in the room and in relation to yourself as you mentally project yourself into the center of the room. When you’ve accounted for all 360 degrees of the circle—if no curve of the arc is missing—then you have your fire scene.
Once you’ve recreated the fire scene as a whole and referenced it to the schematic, study the components of the photographs. By a process of piecing together and rearranging, you can work your way completely around the room, analyzing the fire scene from the photographs in the same way that you would conduct your origin-and-cause of the fire at the scene itself. You analyze “V” patterns, alligatoring, and depth and direction of char. You notice appliances that the home owner swears were not there, cigarettes in wastebaskets, holes in floors, and downward burn patterns on beams. Make notes on your observations and questions. Number these notes carefully so that they match up with the appropriate photos. Years later, if a case comes to trial, you may have to refer to these notes, and you will be grateful for the ease with which they trigger your memory.
It is a good idea to objectify your discoveries by sharing your findings with a partner, colleague, or friend. In the process of explaining what you have discovered, your associate will probably see something that you missed. It helps to have that new perspective because it’s easy to be “too close” to the subject. There’s a saying that if you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught. This applies to photo analysis.
The last step in your photo analysis is to photocopy your work. After you’ve recreated the 360-degree circumference of the room, put sequential numbers on the fronts of the pictures, and photocopy them in the order you have created. This will preserve your 360degree panorama after you have returned your photographic evidence to their original sources and will allow you to recreate it in the future with minimal effort. Since we’re in a business in which we don’t have exclusive access to our evidence, this photocopy will also tell you if any pictures are missing when the time comes for you to testify at a trial.
Fire scene photo analysis isn’t easy. It’s a discipline that requires thoroughness, patience, and attention to minute details. The end product of your efforts, however, is very rewarding. Scrupulous analysis of available photographs gives us the knowledge of what existed at a fire scene after the fire and tells us how this debris relates to the cause, origin, and significance of that fire.