Evolution of Fire Investigation and Impact of Technology

Evolution of Fire Investigation and Impact of Technology

Arson/fire investigation falls among the forensic sciences that have undergone significant developments since it was introduced. By definition, arson investigation is

a set of organizational, technical and operative measures and actions, based on specific methods, approaches and means, used in order to precisely establish the sources of initiation, the means of ignition, the circumstances, and, in certain cases, the responsible persons who generated or influenced the event (Suvar, Munteanu & Nicola, 2020 p.1).

This definition depicts arson/fire investigation as a very complex activity that requires members to possess extensive knowledge and analytical capacity. As such, fire investigators are called upon to make many sophisticated decisions that involve physics together with chemistry (Lentini, 2012). Thankfully, the task has been made relatively easier by technology. Through technologies and tools such as surveillance cameras, computers, email, internet, and canine detection dogs, fire investigators are in a better position to analyze causes of fire, the motive behind fires, and the manner in which it spread.

Before exploring the impact of technology on fire investigation, it would be necessary to provide a short history of the ways in which the practice has evolved. Phillips (2015) records that until the year 2011, fire investigators relied largely on the concept of negative corpus, which is essentially about elimination. Generally, fire incidents were regarded as arson cases if no viable causes or sources of the ignition could be identified. In short, no guidelines existed about how fires ought to be investigated. More importantly, fire investigators relied on apprenticeship, in which knowledge on fire analysis was passed down generations. This knowledge did not rely on science but rather observation together with intuition (California Innocence Project, 2022).

Over time, guidelines have been developed to aid in fire investigations. Investigators rely on science to investigate the origin of fires. For example, the science of ‘fire debris analysis’ was embraced towards the end of the 1990s. Here, analysts focused on detecting and analyzing ignitable residues in floors of burnt buildings. An important finding that was made during the 1990s is that it was not easy to draw a line between accidental fires and those that were intentionally set (Lentini, 2019). At present, technology is being used immensely to aid in fire investigations.

Technologies improve the ability of fire investigators to conduct their investigators by assisting in making all necessary preparations before embarking on the actual job. More specifically, technologies such as the internet provide arson investigators with vital background information upon which they can conduct their investigations (Seaton, 2022). For example, when an investigator receives the report of a certain building being on fire, he/she could quickly log onto the internet and obtain information on the details of the building: the kind of activities conducted there, the people occupying it, and other pertinent information. With such information, the investigator goes to the ground already equipped and prepared to begin investigations.

Diverse technologies are now being used by fire investigators to identify the source or cause of the fire. Some of these technologies are simple; for example, fire investigators can use special dogs known as acceleration detection dogs. These dogs are trained and have the ability to detect potential fire accelerants such as diesel, kerosene, or gasoline (Johnson, 2011). Moreover, such dogs, also commonly referred to as canine detectors, exhibit tremendous sensitivity where search activities are concerned. As a matter of fact, it is argued that such dogs are highly accurate in detecting the presence of inflammable liquids even in scenes where the damage is immense (Forensic Technology Center of Excellence, 2021). With the help of such dogs, fire investigators are able to get clues as to what actually triggered a fire incident.

Besides acceleration detection dogs, fire investigators may also make use of computers to do their investigations. For instance, investigators use computers for modeling, thus obtaining information about where the fire originated from and how quickly it spread (Johnson, 2011). Another technology that is highly useful to fire investigators is surveillance cameras. Such cameras provide pictures and photos that show any movements and activities that took place in a building before a fire erupted.

Technology, in the form of either cellphone cameras or drones, helps the ability of fire investigators to conduct quality investigations by providing comprehensive physical evidence. As stated by Chandler (2021, p.133), “part of the physical evidence policy needs to include documenting the evidence through photography”. Precisely, investigators will need to have clear snapshots of all areas, both the ones that are burnt and those that are not. Such pictures indicate how severe the damage is; at the same time, they may help to identify devices and/or devices that could have caused the ignition.

Technology also improves fire investigation activities and processes by enhancing collaboration together with communication. It goes without saying that to be effective, fire investigators need to obtain as much relevant information as possible. This calls for collaboration and proper communication with key informants and people who have expert knowledge in analyzing data. Because of this, arson investigators make use of new technologies such as email and the internet for communication as well as collaboration. Specifically, these tools help fire investigators to spend as little energy on technical matters as possible, in addition to enabling them access expert opinions with greater ease (Seaton, 2022).

Based on the above discussion, it may rightly be concluded that fire investigation remains a rapidly evolving practice. For this reason, there is need for arson investigators to familiarize themselves with, emerging technologies as well as technological that improve the investigators’ ability to conduct a thorough investigation. This is particularly important considering that fire incidents are difficult to investigate because, in most cases, the evidence gets destroyed in the fire, adding new technologies into the fire investigator’s toolbox is of great significance. Some of the common technologies used by fire investigators, as identified in this research, include canine detection dogs, surveillance cameras, and computers. Through computers, fire investigators are able to do fire modeling, thus obtaining insights into how long the fire took, as well as concentration of carbon monoxide. Fire modeling, which is aided by use of computers, specifically helps fire investigators to determine the origin of a fire and the speed at which it spread.


California Innocence Project. (2022). Fire investigation. https://californiainnocenceproject.org/issues-we-face/fire-investigation/

Chandler, R. K. (2021). Fire investigations for first responders. Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Forensic Technology Center for Excellence. (2021). Advancing fire scene investigations with field portable technologies. https://forensiccoe.org/advancing-fire-scene-investigations/

Johnson, D. (2011). New tools for fire investigators. www.insurancejournal.com/magazines/mag-features/2011/10/03/218299.htm

Lentini, J. J. (2012). The evolution of fire investigation and its impact on Arson Cases. Criminal. Justice27(1), 12.

Lentini, J. J. (2019). Fire investigation: historical perspective and recent developments. Forensic Science Reviews31, 37-44.

Phillips,C. (2015). How arson investigation has changed. www.pbs.org/independentlens/blog/how-arson-investigation-has-changed/

Seaton, M. (2022). The fire investigator’s new tools. www.interfire.org/res_file/nfpaj_nt.asp

Şuvar, M. C., Munteanu, L., & Nicola, A. (2020). The use of numerical models as a modern tool in fire investigation. In MATEC Web of Conferences (Vol. 305, p. 00084). EDP Sciences.

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