The making of a Swedish fire investigator

Methodology matters. Insights from a fire investigator

Fire Investigation with the BLK360 - Article - Richard Jacobssen

Fire investigators play a critical role in helping public safety authorities, insurance companies, architects, and safety planners to understand and prevent fires. Independent fire investigator Richard Jacobsson talks about his approach and the importance of having robust methodologies and efficient tech tools. 


Fire scene investigation -Richard Jacobsson



Richard Jacobsson is an independent fire investigator from Västerås, Sweden, with ten years of experience in the field. He is the co-author of the “Nordisk brandmanual”, a practical guide to fire scene investigations, taught at the Swedish National Forensic Centre (NFC). Leica Geosystems Public Safety asked how he got into this career and what he considers the most important aspects of his work.


"As an electrical engineer, I was working as an R&D manager at a CNC company when I saw that the NFC was offering training in technical fire investigation," explains Richard Jacobsson. "I had always loved TV crime series and the idea of being involved in detective work, so that is how I ended up training as a fire investigator and working for the National Forensic Centre." 


 Leica Public Safety_Expert-Insight_FIRE_Richard-Jacobsson_BLK360_2


Trained to read fire scenes


During the 2-year training, Jacobsson learnt all about the dynamics of fires. What causes them, how they spread and how you recognise what happened by looking at the evidence after the fire. "Approximately 30% of fires are caused by electrical equipment or faults in electrical installation, so being an electrical engineer helped me get the training position. And it still helps my business. Criminal investigators like to have an electrical engineer on site to check for electrical fire cause. There might also be some bare live cables lying around. That is why I have to check electrical safety and deliver an electrical report, where we determine if an electrical fault caused the fire."


A lot of fire training focuses on conducting investigations scientifically. It is about developing a hypothesis and then evaluating it. That means there is the investigative mode – generating your hypothesis and the evaluative method – testing it. 


"In forensic lab work, these phases are distinct, whereas, during fire scene investigation, they overlap because you are collecting evidence and documenting your hypothesis simultaneously. That means, while you work intuitively, you need a robust methodology and a means of documenting everything; otherwise, you won't be able to present the hypothesis and lead non-experts to a decisive conclusion." This is where Jacobsson's Leica BLK360 – Imaging laser scanner and Leica Cyclone REGISTER 360 (BLK Edition) software come into play. 


Richard Jacobsson - fire investigator - Leica BLK360


The Leica BLK360 is an advanced precision imaging laser scanner which delivers spherical images at the push of a button in only twenty seconds. Thanks to the Visual Inertial System (VIS) Technology, scans can be automatically combined on-site, allowing users to work faster and smarter while getting the data they need immediately.



The beauty of robust documentation


"Most of the fire scenes I go to, the first and last thing I do is to capture a few scans and images. That gives me a reliable record of how everything was when we started investigating the scene," explains the veteran investigator. He uses 3D laser scans to visualise the scene and evaluate a variety of different hypotheses during the course of the investigation. 


"Before I purchased the BLK360, I had to rely on sketches, photos and a tape measure. That is a much slower and less flexible way of working, and because of time constraints, there is always a risk that you might not capture some information that turns out to be important later. But with Leica solutions for fire investigation, you can leave the fire scene confident that you have all the information you need." 


It is essential to have a structured approach to investigating fires and documenting the findings. For example, it is crucial to do the steps correctly and always work from outside inwards – from the non-burnt area to the burnt area. 


"We follow the process defined in the Nordic Fire Manual (“Nordisk brandmanual”), which I helped develop and teach at the NFC. Following this method is the best way to deliver a strong report."



Was it arson?


If it's not a total fire damage, a trained fire investigator can see from the burn pattern where the fire began. A natural fire usually spreads from a single point. If the fire seems to have started in several places, that is a strong indication of arson. The presence of accelerants also points to arson. Sniffer dogs can be trained to smell these flammable liquids in the ruins of a fire, but for court cases, you need a material sample. So rather than waiting for a specialist accelerant sniffer dog to arrive from far away, a trained fire investigator can deduce the source of the fire based on visual patterns. 


Leica Public Safety_Expert-Insight_FIRE_Richard-Jacobsson



Powerful software for convincing proof and planning


"From my work in CNC machining, I was already quite used to thinking in 3D and working with modelling software, so it was very easy for me to get used to the Register360 software, which I use mainly for visualisation. I use it to revisit the site and see what things might have looked like, to extract any necessary measurements and finally, to present my hypothesis and findings in a way that someone who is not so technical can understand. I rely on the visualisation features in Register360 for that." 


Leica Cyclone REGISTER 360 is the number one registration software for point clouds. It offers simple, guided workflows that empower users of any skill level to go from scans to deliverables quickly and intuitively. "I am grateful for the special BLK Edition because it is optimised for use with my BLK360 so that I can concentrate on my fire investigation rather than on handling the scans."



Insights for added value


The work of fire investigators goes beyond settling specific cases. It impacts planning too. Imagine a housing estate where all the houses are built the same way. Some homes get destroyed in a fire. The obvious question is if the houses were designed adequately regarding fire protection. 


"An expert can probably tell that fairly quickly, but we need to be able to explain the problem to a non-expert, judges or lawyers or planners. In one case, I scanned an entire intact house and a burnt house and laid these scans on top of each other in REGISTER 360. From that data, I could visualise the firewall design's impact on the fire's development."


Investigators can use this information to order remedial measures on the remaining houses. Another example would be when the insurance company is trying to decide whether to tear everything down and start again or use parts of a building that survived the fire. 


"My BLK360 scans show the insurance engineers what structural elements were deformed during the fire and by how much."


"Leica Cyclone REGISTER360 (BLK Edition) allows me to do virtual walk-throughs, visualise the fire scene interactively, and take any necessary measurements in this way. But I can also export data to other open platforms, making it easy to collaborate with the partners."

Richard Jacobsson - Leica BLK360


3 good reasons to choose the Leica BLK360 – Imaging laser scanner

Taking a complete spherical image and 3D point cloud takes only a little over one minute. View, inspect, fly through your 3D point clouds and deliver an immersively visualised Forensic Digital Twin.

The imaging scanner 3D scanner has integrated spherical imaging system and thermography panorama sensor system, allowing the fire investigator to capture the thermal information and view and adjust HDR photospheres. This can prove crucial in reconstructing the story of the fire decisively.

The BLK360 solution offers powerful processing simplified with automated registration and easy-to-use cleaning tools. Moreover, from the maximum distance of 60m, fire and explosion investigators can quickly and safely capture the respective scene and document evidence with an accuracy of 8 mm.


Richard Jacobsson - fire investigator - headshot 

Fire Investigator and Forensic Expert: Richard Jacobsson 
Owner of FSEC - Forensic Security

Author: David M. Taylor

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