The Forensic Anthropology Program at Western Carolina University recently hosted three days of experiential training in structural fire and arson investigations – building and burning a furnished structure in the process.
The continuing education class was held in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Held May 13-15, and attended by federal, state and local officials, along with WCU students and K9 cadaver dog handlers, the class was an introduction to forensic anthropology and fire analysis. Topics covered included anthropological approaches to the study of burned remains, forensic archaeology and fire scene aftermath, and a tour of WCU’s “body farm” human decomposition study facility.
“This class demonstrates the importance of collaboration and disciplinary expertise,” said Nick Passalacqua, director of the Forensic Anthropology Program. “We have forensic anthropologists explaining how to analyze burned human remains, fire scene investigators explaining how fires start, spread and affect the environment, and human remains detection dog handlers explaining how dogs respond to different types of scents in normal and burned remains.
“I think what really stands out is the unique experiential learning that training like this offers, which is a cornerstone of our program. We always strive to be hands-on, and to teach with a mindset of problem-based learning from our casework experience,” he said. “All of this is important for generating a more holistic approach to the investigation of burn scenes involving human remains.”
The K9 handlers had come from across the United States and abroad for the university’s highly specialized detection dog training, conducted annually by Lisa Briggs, professor and director of WCU’s Emergency and Disaster Management Program. This particular session – coinciding with the fire training – was a rare opportunity for handlers to build the necessary foundational skills to recover victims who perish in accidental fires or arson, Briggs said.
“It is unlikely that such experiences and opportunities to train in this manner are provided elsewhere in the country,” she said.
Darren Solomon, senior special agent and certified fire investigator with the Charlotte Field Division of ATF, said the class offers fire investigators an experience that he believes is exclusive to WCU, while the combination of lectures and tactile exercises complement each other and reinforce the learning points that investigators will use in the field. Networking and relationship building were another important aspect, he said.
“This year’s training has gained a national reputation and was attended by fire investigators and K9 teams from across the nation,” Solomon said. “The networking opportunities offered between attendees and instructors is immense. A personal highlight for myself is seeing the layering of expertise from a multitude of disciplines in one environment. Each group brings a unique perspective that contributes and elevates everyone.
“The benefactor of such learning is our community, which now has better personnel searching for answers when they need it most,” he said.