Student Arson Investigators Train At Vacant House

A vacant house on Old Highway 49 in Gulfport was used for fire training exercises on Thursday.  USM students taking an "arson investigation" class used the structure for some practical hands on training.  Students began with a scorched mattress and searched a bedroom for clues.

"It's a child's room because of the toys that are in the room," said one team member.

They combed for clues methodically.

"Looks like the fire was started in the bed and broke the window," said another student.

A vacant house offers the opportunity to apply classroom logic to a realistic fire scene.

Dr. Tom Payne is the instructor.

"One of the biggest challenges is the fact that most of your evidence is burned up. And it's a difficult scene to work. It's very complicated, a very complex scene to work," Payne said.

"Right here, on the surface right here," said a team member, pointing to a scorched stove top.

"Somebody cooking in here, ran to see what was burning in the bedroom," said one student, after considering the scenario.

A separate kitchen fire provided more clues and unanswered questions for the team.

"Something here, a light maybe?" said one student, pointing her flashlight toward the ceiling.

"You have to look at all those things to determine what made the fire spread and if there are any accelerants in the building that started the fire," said student Carolyn Munro.

"What else do you notice in here?" asked  Gulfport fire investigator Joe Ing, who tested the students' clue gathering skills.

"We have a broken door. We have a broken window. And a can of accelerant we found here," said Ing.

It's not just the students using the house for training. Gulfport firefighters practice teamwork and rescue-recovery.

"Because we can set it up and then walk them thru the process and show them exactly what happened, how it happened, why it happened," said Gulfport fire chief Pat Sullivan.

Firefighters get valuable training and so do student investigator-detectives.

"You are a detective. You're a forensics investigator. And that's what we're training my students to be here. This is CSI in the real world," said Dr. Payne.

There are 17 students in Dr. Payne's arson investigating class at USM. They spent three days in the classroom before tackling the lab assignment in the vacant house.