Thorough documentation of the fire scene is essential for fire investigators to accurately determine the origin and cause of a fire. Chapter 16 of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 921 (2021 edition) provides valuable guidance on scene documentation, outlining the necessary steps and considerations. In this article, we will delve into the importance of scene documentation, exploring the methods, tools, and key elements outlined in NFPA 921 (2021). By understanding the significance of comprehensive documentation and following the recommended practices, fire investigators can enhance the effectiveness and credibility of their investigations.


Preliminary Documentation: Setting the Stage for Investigation

Before diving into the specifics of scene documentation, it is crucial to establish a strong foundation. This includes forming an investigative team, conducting a pre-investigation briefing, determining the investigation’s scope, and securing the necessary permissions and access to the scene. These preliminary steps help ensure a well-coordinated and focused documentation process (Fire Investigation Handbook, 3rd edition, p. 120).


Documentation Methods and Tools: Capturing the Scene

Effective documentation relies on utilizing appropriate methods and tools. Photography is a fundamental component, enabling investigators to capture the overall scene, close-up details, and evidence. High quality photographs provide visual references for later analysis and reporting. In addition to photography, sketches, diagrams, videography, measurements, and comprehensive notetaking contribute to a holistic documentation process (National Association of Fire Investigators, “Best Practices for Fire Investigation Documentation,” p. 6).


Key Elements of Scene Documentation: The Devil is in the Details

To achieve comprehensive scene documentation, certain key elements must be prioritized. These include capturing overall scene images, close-up photographs of specific evidence, using evidence markers and labels for reference, documenting injuries to occupants or responders, recording environmental conditions, identifying fire patterns and burn indicators, and assessing the extent of structural damage. These elements collectively provide crucial information for analyzing and determining the fire’s origin and cause (International Association of Arson Investigators, “Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations,” p. 67).

Documentation Priorities: Ensuring Vital Information is Preserved

In the midst of a fire investigation, it is essential to establish priorities for documentation. The safety of  responders and investigators take precedence, followed by documenting perishable evidence that may degrade or alter over time. Documentation should also consider potential reconstruction needs, encompassing multiple perspectives and capturing sequential changes during the investigation process. By focusing on these priorities, investigators can safeguard valuable information and maintain its integrity (NFPA 921, 2021, p. 16-10).


Special Considerations: Unique Aspects of Documentation

Certain circumstances require special consideration when documenting the fire scene. These include documenting electrical systems and utilities, capturing the impact of fire suppression activities, evaluating fire protection systems’ operational status and maintenance, documenting alterations made during suppression efforts, and noting post-fire artifacts and observations. Paying attention to these specific aspects provides a comprehensive picture of the incident and aids in accurate analysis (Fire Investigation Handbook, 3rd edition, p. 126).


Documentation Quality Assurance: Ensuring Reliability and Consistency

To maintain the quality and reliability of documentation, several factors come into play. Peer review and validation help ensure accuracy and consistency. Proper handling and preservation of evidence are maintained through a chain of custody. Organizing documentation effectively facilitates accessibility and reference. Supplementing documentation with additional materials, such as video recordings or 3D scans, can further enhance the overall quality and context (National Association of Fire Investigators, “Best Practices for Fire Investigation Documentation,” p. 12).



Thorough scene documentation is the bedrock of a successful fire investigation. By following the guidelines outlined in NFPA 921 (2021 edition) Chapter 16 and drawing upon the expertise and recommendations of other credible sources, fire investigators can establish a comprehensive record of the fire scene. The use of photography, sketches, measurements, and meticulous notetaking enables the capture of vital information. By prioritizing key elements, considering extraordinary circumstances, and ensuring documentation quality, investigators can enhance the accuracy and credibility of their findings. By embracing the importance of scene documentation, fire investigators contribute to the advancement of the field and the safety of communities.





Fire Investigation Handbook, 3rd edition
National Association of Fire Investigators, “Best Practices for Fire Investigation Documentation”
International Association of Arson Investigators, “Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations”