Arson Investigations: How Can Fire Testing Help?

It might seem strange to think about, but the science of fire testing has progressed dramatically in just the last few years. With the sophisticated technology available to many police and fire departments and the incredible advances in forensic testing and chemical analysis used by crime scene analysts, arson investigators have never had a more powerful set of tools with which to scrutinize the scene of a destructive fire.

At the Atomic Level

Forensic teams make frequent use of a technology called “mass spectrometry” to determine the nature of the evidence they find at a crime scene. Spectrographs can tell an investigator the precise chemical mixture of nearly anything that has physical mass, which means anything from a burnt piece of wood down to a tiny drop of flammable liquid can be tested and identified even hours or days after a fire.

While this technique is often used to test for the presence of an accelerant, it can also be used to test debris for the presence of chemicals that result from a particular kind of fire. Not only could evidence of arson turn up, but evidence of exactly what burned might accompany it.

The Big Picture

Years ago, the best way to demonstrate an arson scene would be to give someone a tour. Now, the best way to analyze where everything is might be to plant a 3D scanner in the center of the room and allow it to create an exact three-dimensional duplicate of the scene.

The reason this is useful is because it becomes a gigantic super-high-resolution photograph of the scene that can be viewed and measured from literally any angle. It can also be overlaid with maps of damage, heat residue, debris and burn patterns to get an exact picture of what happened.

The scene can also be plotted on a timeline, showing the damage as it happened in real time based on the evidence at the scene. The results can demonstrate to an investigator or a jury exactly where a fire started and how it progressed.

Ruling Out

These kinds of precise investigative techniques can also help rule out criminal activity in a case where the initial evidence points to an erroneous conclusion. Many times fires that are initially ruled arson later turn out to have been caused by accidents, appliances or leaks in gas or steam pipe systems. When the debris from a fire is examined by trained and experienced personnel, they can often find the true cause even if some of the evidence points elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of arson crimes result in no conviction. In many cases, law enforcement is ill-equipped to scrutinize the unusual kinds of evidence found at an arson scene, and therefore doesn’t have the ability to gather the information it needs. This, among other reasons, is the main justification for seeking out the advice of a qualified and knowledgeable analysis and testing company. The same forensic investigations that are used successfully in other criminal cases can be used to find the truth in an arson case.