News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 2, 2012

Burn school: Criminal justice students learn intricacies of fire investigations

Brian Boyce
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Community partnerships had local college students burning to learn this week.

The streets were full of trick-or-treaters Wednesday evening, but in the back parking lot of Harrison College, a group of Harrison College students watched a small shed set afire. For those enrolled in the school’s criminal justice program, the scene would provide a case study in solving arsons.

Brian Royer, the school’s criminal justice program coordinator, said students from criminal law and procedures, as well as criminal investigations, took part in the mock arson and follow-up discussions.

“We’re trying to do a lot more hands-on learning and rely less on classroom lectures,” he explained while members of the Lost Creek Township Volunteer Fire Department stood off to the side.

The small shed was about 7 feet high and contained some furniture and personal belongings which would later serve as potential evidence. A volunteer lit a rolled up newspaper with a match and tossed the flaming bundle inside at 6 p.m. Within minutes, black smoke barreled out the top, up into the sky over Indiana 46. By 6:07 p.m., the firefighters had the flames extinguished and a potential crime scene ready to investigate.

Inside, Terre Haute Fire Department Arson Task Force director Norm Loudermilk offered classroom instruction and prepared to take several students out to see the shed’s remains. Determining the fire’s origin and potential cause are among the goals in the first phase of an investigation, he explained.

Given the nature of fire, the destruction of evidence is always a risk, as is spoilage due to exposure to the elements, he added. But clues to an arson are often found if multiple points of origin are discovered, as is the case with unusual burn patterns indicating extreme heat in one location, he said.

“Obviously, for students this is fantastic,” he said as the group prepared to go outside. The students who had watched the burning were ready to come in and switch, making for a good mix, he said. “Any time you can take book work and put it together with practical skills, that’s the best kind of learning.”

Harrison College has more than a dozen campuses nationally, as well as online programs. Louis Reeves, dean for the college’s overall criminal justice program, said the combination of a classroom lecture with hands-on learning is among its hallmarks.

“Harrison specializes in hands-on, applied learning,” he said, noting the criminal justice degrees were just recently introduced in 2008. The Terre Haute and Indianapolis campuses were the first to offer classes.

Other programs have included a mock death investigation with participation from the Vigo County Coroner’s office. Royer said field trips have taken them to federal courthouses and prisons.

Harold Osborn, deputy volunteer chief of the Lost Creek Township Volunteer Fire Department, said he’s also a full-time firefighter at Honey Creek. Over the years, he said looking for things that are “out of the ordinary in the building” are one of the keys to discovering arson.

“I’m a little surprised they’re teaching this in a college course,” he said with approval.

Austin Harrison, 20, a freshman at the school, said a career in law enforcement seems interesting to him, and it’s in keeping with the active lifestyle he enjoys. Watching the shed burn, he said he was looking forward to learning about investigation techniques.

“It’s pretty interesting,” he said.

Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or