Laser Scanning Eliminates Danger of Oversight and Speculation in Fire Investigation

Oversight in fire investigation can devastate lives far beyond the physical damage caused by the fire. While oversight is unavoidable with manual methods of scene documentation, it is essentially eliminated with the use of a high-definition 3D laser scanner. This state-of-the-art technology quickly and permanently captures complex scene details and spatial relationships with the comprehensiveness, accuracy and permanence needed for rigorous scientific analysis. “The better the data, the more hypotheses we can test,” said Dr. John DeHaan, president of fire and explosion consultancy firm Fire-Ex Forensics Inc., “and the more certain we can be of the findings.”
DeHaan has seen the devastation that uncertainty can wreak. One case involved a 1999 Cleveland, Ohio, house fire in which two children died. The mother escaped, she said, through a bedroom window. Just two days after the multiple-fatality fire, the house was demolished and the investigation was cut short. Afterward, when an issue was raised regarding the veracity of the mother’s testimony and whether she could have exited through the window the way she said she did, it was up to speculation. “The original investigator in 2000 said she couldn’t have come out that way,” DeHaan said. And that opinion became a determining factor in the woman’s fate.
For the last 13 years, the mother has been incarcerated for killing her children. The case is now up for appeal, and the window is again being looked at. “We are now 12 years after the event—and 12 years minus one day of the building being demolished—and you are trying to estimate the width of the window,” said DeHaan, who was retained in 2012 by the Office of the Ohio Public Defender to review the case. “And you go, ‘Well, comparing it to the shingle beneath—well, was that a standard shingle? The building was 100 years old. What kind of shingles were those?” DeHaan said. “And you think, ‘There’s just no way to make that estimate.’”
Laser scan data, together with 3D point cloud processing and visualization software, allows for thorough scene exploration and analysis, even years after the fact, as in this criminal case. “If there’d been a scan of that building, either from the inside or outside, we would’ve been able to say, ‘Well, plus or minus a quarter of an inch, here’s how wide the window was and here’s how high it was off the floor.’ Could she have gotten out that window? My opinion was: Yes, she could have.”
The outcome of a fire investigation can mean the difference between innocence and guilt and even life and death. “I’ve testified in death-penalty cases. I’ve testified in life-without-parole cases. But even a simple arson case where a person’s going to face a year in jail, that’s going to be a life-changing event,” DeHaan said. “And you better have it right.”
For more information on 3D laser scanning technology, contact us.
About the author: Wendy Lyons is a freelance writer living in Canton, Georgia, and has a degree in journalism. Lyons was introduced to geomatics through her work as associate editor for the nation’s leading land surveying magazine.

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