Pre-Fire Photographs

Forensic Services Newsletter

There is a practice amongst insurers of taking photographs of risks. This can be prior to taking up a risk or at renewal. In the event of a fire these photographs are sometimes made available to Forensic Services and for a variety of reasons we find them to be most useful. In fact they are so useful for deliberate fires or for claims where stock is exaggerated that we would like to encourage insurers to take better photographs, and more often. This article describes the uses of photographs and suggests ways to take effective ones.

Fire Spread

To understand how a fire has spread a fire investigator has to have a good idea of the building construction and distribution of goods. To some extent the building has to be reconstructed, at least mentally, and this can be difficult to do in cases of extreme damage. Of particular importance are items high up, whether they are goods hung in a shop, a combustible ceiling or a mezzanine. If such features are not immediately apparent to the investigator, a false impression can be gained. For example an investigator might incorrectly suspect unusually rapid spread or even multiple seats of fire.

Quantity of Stock

Exaggeration of the quantity of goods is a feature of some fires. Loss adjusters and forensic scientists have techniques to determine pre-fire levels. Irrespective of the success of these, pre-fire photographs are always useful. Even if the photographs were taken a considerable time before the fire, the methods of stacking and the locations of the aisles assist in building up a picture of the goods at the time of the fire.

Quantity of Type of Stock

Different versions, brands and varieties of the same basic commodity can differ in value by an order of magnitude. After a fire it can be very difficult to distinguish from physical evidence alone. The right photograph can make all the difference. See below for more comments.

Deliberate Fires

Most of the uses cited above are of obvious advantage to an investigator at a deliberate fire, and in this event the question arises as to who set the fire. In determining whether the premises were secure at the time of the fire it is of obvious advantage to know the status of doors and windows. Sometimes damage is so great that it becomes impossible to reconstruct from physical evidence, and pre-fire photographs can assist in showing in a court of law that the premises were secure.

Most deliberate fires involving insurance claims have an economic motive. This can involve machinery, stock or both. It is in this area that pre-fire photographs are most useful and can be crucial in a court case. Some businesses, even whole factories, can be established for the sole purpose of making a fraudulent insurance claim. Interestingly, even if pre-fire photographs are initiated by an insured with the intent of ‘proving’ that goods were present, our experience is that such photographs turn out to be more useful to the insurers than the insured.


The best way to store digital photographs at present is to burn them to a disk, which is put in a file. The capacity of these cheap disks is far in excess of people’s patience to take the photos. There is no need and it is a waste of money to print the photographs. Far less than 1% of photographs will ever be needed to be referred to, therefore it would not be necessary to spend on the print of all the photographs.

Digital cameras are able to be used in low light situations. The quality of the camera is not that important. What is important is to take useful photographs and have a system to register that the photographs were taken on a certain date by a particular person and to safely store those photographs.

New risks and businesses where there has been a significant increase in insurance would be good places to nominate for photographs. We would also suggest businesses in wooden or part wooden buildings, and isolated neighbourhoods or the ones located in areas where there are a lot of vacant lots.

Technique Hints
1. Show the big picture Photographs from a distance, overlapping if necessary, are better than isolated close-up photographs.
2. Try to show all sides of a building Stand at a corner and bracket two sides at once.
3. Concentrate on the high cost items
  1. Determine if there are any high cost equipment and take appropriate photographs.
  2. If there is one or two particularly costly items, photograph a label or identification panel.
4. Photograph from a height so as to overlook stock or machinery Height gives a 3D effect.
5. Take photographs that illustrate the height to which stock is stacked Take photographs that show the height of stock relative to a building feature.
6. Shoot in line with aisles As well as showing where goods were not kept, an aisle shot depicts depth and the proportion of space used by various items.
7. Notes Making notes on where each photograph is taken within a business is time consuming. Better is to take a lot of photographs in a logical sequence such that the photographs themselves show where they were taken.

Examples :

Before Fire Exterior Before Fire Interior Warehouse for Security paper.
The top two photographs were taken just before the fire. To obtain height the photographer had himself lifted by a forklift.
The site after the fire is shown bottom left. With the pre-fire photographs, the model at bottom right could be made and this was used in court.
After Fire Model
Before Plastic feedstock warehouse.
The before photograph was taken at the request of the insured, just before the fire. Note the absence of pallets under the bags, whereas there were burnt remains of pallets all over the fire site, shown on the right.
Furniture retail display.
The pre-fire photographs assisted in the determination of packing density.
Pre-Fire Post-Fire
Pre-Fire Factory Toy factory in Thailand.
The pre-fire photographs assisted in appreciating why so many of the workers were not able to escape from the burning factory.
Post-Fire Factory
Before After Garment storage.
The claimed density of jeans in this warehouse fire could only be achieved if they were stored in industrial floor-to-ceiling racks. Yet pre-fire photographs showing jeans stored in display-style shelves.
Warehouse The photograph shows a warehouse in Thailand after a fire. Physical examination of debris combined with pre-fire photographs enabled a computer depiction of the likely quantity of goods at the time of the fire. Depiction


Barry Dillon

Business Set Up to Burn | Self Heating of Farm Produce | Hot Work Accidents | Chinese Altars | Textile Fires | GC Analysis | On-Board Marine Investigations | Pre-Fire Photographs | Furniture Fires in Malaysia | Medium Density Board Factory Fires