Arson investigation exercise fires up criminal justice students

In a unique professional opportunity, Radford University criminal justice students braved the aftermath of an inferno to sharpen their arson investigation techniques.

The burn and subsequent investigation took place on April 5 in Lot Z in the Virginia Department of Fire Programs’ (VDFP) mobile burn trailer. The experience was led by Chief of the Virginia Fire Marshals Academy in Richmond Bobby Bailey, who ignited one of the three chambers in the 53-foot long mobile laboratory for arson investigation.

The incendiary experience culminated the Fire and Arson Investigation seminar class, taught by Instructor Todd Jones ’88, MS’ 94. Twenty-two students practiced techniques and skills learned in the classroom to collect and handle evidence and identify the origin of the fire.

“Exercises like these are so useful because they’re practical,” said senior Samuel Rogers. “There are fires everywhere so it is a possibility that I’m receiving training for a job I will be asked to do in the future.”

Divided into four teams, the teams were tasked with investigating the origin of the fire in an assigned chamber. Students analyzed burn marks and patterns to determine where the fire started and whether or not an accelerant was used.

“They were very engaged and ready to investigate,” Jones said.  “They’ve learned what they need to learn throughout the course and were eager to apply it in the field.”

Throughout the exercise, Jones emphasized scientific investigatory methods. Jones is an arson investigator covering Western Virginia for Virginia Farm Bureau Insurance and a Certified Fire Investigator by the International Association of Arson Investigators.

The Fire and Arson Investigation class provides students with insight into professional fire investigation and introduces them to the skills needed to conduct arson investigations.

According to Bailey, the burn trailer is an improvement upon previous methods for learning arson investigation. Previously, abandoned buildings were torched by a fire department and produced hazardous and noxious smoke, to the displeasure of neighbors and environmental protection agencies nationally and locally.

In response, Bailey designed the mobile burn trailer. There are only three mobile burn trailers in the nation – two in Virginia. The trailer allows operators to set up real-life scenes such as living rooms, kitchens or offices and then set them aflame. The trailer then vents the smoke, leaving the chamber safe to be investigated immediately afterward.

burn trailer arson investigation action shot

IAAI-certified fire investigator and Radford criminal justice instructor Todd Jones ’88, MS’ 94 worked on a mock arson investigation with students to hone techniques and skills learned in the classroom.

Apr 13, 2016