Fire, Explosion and Arson Investigation

When Tom Thurman watched on television as the terrorist act on April 15 at the Boston Marathon unfolded, the 35-year explosives investigator automatically began taking note.

Beyond the human carnage that killed three and injured an estimated 264 people, Thurman saw an investigator’s nightmare. “I thought, oh my goodness, look at all these people and how are you going to control the scene?” he said. “Of course, you want witnesses, but you have so many people there that how are you going to identify who was doing what? I’m thinking about a gargantuan problem of control, because a scene needs control, control, control.”

The retired, 20-year FBI investigative veteran also observed that two explosions – 13 seconds and 210 yards apart – immediately meant more than a single individual was involved. And watching a televised, practically live, view of the event also indicated that identifying the bombers would be easier. “I thought immediately this was going to be an historical event…one that was going to be the most photo-documented bombing in this country’s history,” he said. “They had video running of the race for various purposes and all the people with still and video cameras taking pictures of friends and family” was a huge boost to investigators.


Major incidents investigated

Thurman’s perspective in this major domestic act of terrorism is founded on considerable experience as an explosion investigator, which has taken him around the globe: the Beirut, Lebanon, Marine barracks bombing in 1983; Lockerbie, Scotland, and the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988; New York City and the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993; and Oklahoma City and the Murrah Federal Building bombing in 1995. The 1969 graduate of Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) and Kentucky native returned to his alma mater to teach in 1998.

Thurman’s alacrity in synthesizing a bombing scene brings a new dimension to EKU’s Fire, Arson and Explosion Investigation (FAEI) degree program, where he is a lead professor. “We are the only academic program in the world that teaches fire, arson and explosion investigation,” he said. “We teach theoretical models in the classroom and take these models out of the classroom and put them in the real-world environment to verify the theoretical models. ATF and FBI – and to a lesser extent the U.S. Postal Service – have schools that teach investigators post-blast techniques. But there’s no place in the world that takes students in an academic environment and teaches them the skills, as we do at EKU.”

As a means to reach out to professionals across the country, EKU has taken its FAEI bachelor’s program online. The online degree program mirrors the campus-based platform and gives students an opportunity to earn an accredited degree taught by experts in the field.

“As a fire investigator, you want to have solid credentials and be recognized as a true expert in the evolving field of fire science so that you can report your findings and testify in court with confidence,” said Jim Pharr, program chair and associate professor in the department of Safety, Security and Emergency Management. The new online program is especially valuable to working professionals in the field who are seeking career advancement, Pharr said. “Our online format allows students to study with leading professionals in the field, get regular feedback from those instructors and get hands-on lab experience.”

To cement the concepts presented online, FAEI-online features a week-long summer residency. “The residency has four courses that have hands-on components that we were not comfortable putting online,” said Greg Gorbett, another lead professor for the program. “The first two courses during the first summer of attendance in the program involve classroom work for the first portion of the courses. Then you come to our campus for seven straight days of fire and explosion investigation.”

EKU has one of the few research-tasked burn buildings in the country. Instead of providing firefighters with training in extinguishment techniques, EKU’s burn building and adjacent 10-acre range provide a hands-on lab for students to investigate everything from an electrical appliance failure to an improvised explosive device (IED) that has destroyed a car. In terms of the realism created in the program, Thurman falls back on a cliche: “It’s as close to real world as possible, short of blood and guts. These are smaller environments than an investigator will usually find, but they accurately represent actual scenes.”

As students advance through the FAEI degree program, a second residency brings participants back to the university’s Richmond, KY, campus. “The next two classes the following summer involve the pre-work and then the work on campus for seven days involving a lot of case preparation, interviewing, evidence and debris analysis. This is a pretty intensive program with a number of scenes to investigate,” said Gorbett, who also is a director of the National Association of Fire Investigators (NAFI).

“During the residency, we are going to look at student knowledge and how it aligns with NFPA (National Fire Protection Association Standard) 921,” Gorbett said. The NFPA defines 921 as: “…Sets the bar for scientific-based investigation and analysis of fire and explosion incidents. Referenced in the field, in training, and in court, it is the foremost guide for rendering accurate opinions as to incident origin, cause, responsibility, and prevention. It is intended for use by both public sector employees who are responsible for fire investigation and private sector professionals who conduct investigations for insurance companies or litigation purposes.”

Gorbett said, “We will invariably hone some student skills because many of our students are practicing fire investigation professionals. In some cases, we have students who have spent 40 some years in the field and are coming back for a degree. I believe that’s a huge strength of this program – and that they’re going to get a vast amount of information from instructors and their colleagues. What I’m really looking forward to is learning a lot from the students. Regardless of how many years one has on the job as an investigator, we all observe something that can add to the conversation, which will strengthen individuals and the program. There are guys who are attending this program who have been investigating longer than I’ve been alive. One student currently works for a large corporation and flies worldwide doing investigations. Learning from each other is going to be incredible – and we’re happy to see an incredibly strong group so far. This is not only my vocation it’s my avocation – it’s my love.

He added, “EKU is known for investigations. We want to ensure that each of the classes in this degree program portray its strength. The fire program here began in the ’70s. The fire investigations aspect has been a mainstay, but with Tom Thurman’s arrival in 1998, the explosion investigation facet was greatly strengthened. With this new online offering, we are making sure the lineage of the classes and their degrees are strengthened and continue EKU’s legacy of excellence in fire, arson and explosion investigations.”