VR technology is assisting fire scene investigation

12th June 2024
Paige West

Forensic scientists at the University of Dundee’s Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science (LRCFS) are developing a new protocol for capturing fire and crime scenes using virtual reality (VR) technology, leveraging footage from real fire scenes.

In collaboration with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) and the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) Forensic Services, the VR software has already been successfully implemented in training exercises.

The technology is also gaining traction across Europe, with plans for a demonstration at the European Network of Forensic Science Institutes (ENFSI) fire and explosion investigation working group meeting later this year.

Professor Niamh Nic Daeid, Director of LRCFS and leader of the work, said: “Introducing new technologies into the justice system has to be done carefully so that the scientific standards required by the courts are met.

“Working in partnership with practitioners from different agencies, as well as our legal colleagues, will bring us closer to using VR both for training but also potentially in casework.”

To develop immersive VR representations of fire scenes, forensic scientists constructed realistic mock-ups of residential rooms and intentionally burnt them. This controlled setup allows for genuine investigations and data collection, enhancing the accuracy and effectiveness of the VR training simulations.

Footage of the damage caused by these fires is captured using traditional cameras and transformed into an immersive VR experience. This allows investigators to revisit the scene multiple times immediately after the incident and enables the same scene to be used in various training sessions.

Fire investigators and forensic scientists can utilise this virtual investigation tool alongside traditional methods to estimate the fire's origin, cause, and development.

The latest of these controlled burns occurred on Wednesday, 5 June, at a training and research facility in Portlethen, Aberdeenshire, which opened last year.

The Scottish Fire Investigation Training and Research Facility was established to provide competency training for fire investigators from the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) and the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) Forensic Services.

Representatives from SFRS, SPA Forensic Services, the Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science (LRCFS), and the independent fire investigation body, Hawkins, attended and participated in a workshop with the VR software following the burn.

Steven Corrigan, SFRS Group Commander, said: “Exercises such as this controlled burn are important and hugely worthwhile for fire investigators to train in a unique and dynamic environment.

“By simulating fire scenarios and using VR technology to revisit the scene, our fire investigators will be able to identify causes of fires and how these may be prevented.

“SFRS is committed to investing in prevention and protection, and events such as these are hugely important to our ongoing fire investigation training.”

Karen Robertson, Forensic Lead for SPA Forensic Services, said: “This innovative facility allows SPA Forensic Services to work with live test burns and use the latest technology to improve the high-quality fire investigations we deliver as part of our commitment to scientific excellence.

“This novel approach created by LRCFS has now been adopted by SPA Forensic Services, through significant work delivered by Police Scotland Digital Division.”

The VR tool was previously trialled by SFRS and SPA Forensic Services using footage LRCFS researchers obtained while working with Danish Police fire investigators, who created controlled fires within a variety of buildings in Denmark in a collaborative project with the University of Dundee team.

The use of immersive technology has been shown to significantly increase the number of investigators able to determine crucial factors related to the origin and development of fires. This finding was reported in the team's academic paper, published by Springer Link and available online.

Some participants were able to recall the layout of the scene and draw accurate sketches of objects and burn patterns after reviewing the scene in VR.

Vincenzo Rinaldi, VR Specialist at LRCFS and developer of the software, explained that the technology allows the fire or crime scene to be brought to the investigator, rather than the investigator having to travel to the scene.

“Our results showed there was a general improvement in the formulation of hypotheses of the cause and origin of the fire and its development,” Vincenzo said.

“We did two rounds of testing. The first was using traditional documents, 2D digital photographs of the scene, which is what currently happens, and the second integrated these photographs with a VR reconstruction of the crime scene.

“There was a greater confidence in the hypothesis being presented when VR was included alongside traditional documents.”

The recording process was originally designed by PhD student Sang-hun (Sean) Yu, who is jointly supervised by LRCFS and the University’s Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design.

The team are continuing research to further improve the quality of the footage and develop the technology into a professional tool. 

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