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ADVANCED SURVEYING TECHNOLOGY FOR FORENSIC MAPPING

OF FIRE AND EXPLOSION INCIDENT SCENES



Brian C. Dunagan, CSP, CFEI
Incident Free Operations, Inc., USA

ABSTRACT
Total stations (electronic surveying equipment) have been frequently utilized by traffic accident investigators
and reconstruction specialists for more 20 years to dramatically reduce the time and labor required to document
and map vehicle accident scenes while allowing collection of data that can be directly imported into modeling
and mapping software. This technology also has other forensic applications and can readily be utilized to assist
investigators in systematically and accurately mapping fire and explosion incident scenes.

Total stations include all of the advantages of theodolites and virtually eliminate the need for measuring tapes in
investigations by virtue of electronic distance measuring (EDM). The instrument transmits an infrared laser
beam which is reflected back from an object or a mirrored prism and the time it takes for the beam to travel is
converted by an on-board computer into units of spatial measure. Distances, angles, elevations, and other
information so gathered can then be stored in a data collector linked to the total station. Once a scene has been
processed, the point geometry data collected can be imported into software designed to convert the
measurements into computer based fire and smoke models for reconstruction analyses or to construct 2D or 3D
graphical representations of the scene.
Examples of precision data that can be collected:
Equipment and furniture positions
Room and compartment dimensions
Heat and smoke stratification levels
Material deflections from overpressures and direct physical impacts
Burn patterns
Extent of spills
Victim positions and movements
Measurements not readily attainable by normal means (high vertical distances, over water, etc.)
This paper summarizes the methodologies and equipment for utilizing total stations for the forensic mapping of
fire and explosion scenes. First, an overview of total stations and associated equipment such as prisms and data
collectors will be presented. Second, a case example using forensic mapping of a fire scene utilizing the
methodology will be explored. Third, the constraints and the legal considerations of the technology will be
discussed. Finally, it will be demonstrated that the use of these techniques can assist the savvy investigator in
building a compelling case scenario that builds on and complements the other evidence collected while satisfying
the ever increasing standards for reliable and accurate documentation of scenes.