Public Release: 

SHSU collaborates with fire marshals on forensic death investigations

Sam Houston State University


IMAGE: The program was attended by 62 fire marshals, investigators and attorneys from small and large agencies across the country, including the Texas Rangers, The Texas State Fire Marshal's Office,... view more

Credit: Harriet McHale/SHSU

HUNTSVILLE, TX -- One of only two fire death investigation courses in the country using human case studies recently was made possible by property access and logistical support at Sam Houston State University, with lectures and research provided by the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility (STAFS) and other professional and academic leaders.

"This program could not have been possible without a suitable location," said Steve Seddig, Deputy Fire Chief/Fire Marshal for Wylie and President of the association. "The Center for Biological Forensic Science provided the answer, as part of their commitment to cross-disciplinary scientific discovery and education."

The training was funded in part by the Texas Forensic Science Commission. The program was sponsored by the Collin County Fire & Arson Investigators Association (CCFAIA), an agency formed in 2013 to deliver training tied to academic programs, the scientific method, hands-on exercises and the study of pre- and post-fire causes. The program was attended by 62 fire marshals, investigators and attorneys from small and large agencies across the country , including the Texas Rangers, The Texas State Fire Marshal's Office, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and representatives from Arkansas, Nevada, Oklahoma, McAllen, Guadalupe County, Wichita County, Sequin, and Waco, to name a few.

"Our goal is to provide this course to smaller cities, offering a rare chance for participants to experience burn scenarios with controlled variables that yield professional research level training results," said Seddig. "The participants will gain experience in the use of observation, experimentation, and conclusion that becomes critical for formulating the theory/hypothesis tied to the scientific method."

The five-day program covered a wide variety of information on fire science, fire death investigations, and forensic science. The week culminated with controlled experiments to investigate fire deaths in a dwelling, a pit and a garbage can, utilizing cadavers from STAFS. The exercise included three identical dwelling scenes, with one distinct difference -- the weapon used on the victim. Fire investigators were able to observe the scene prior to the fire and investigate the scene and causes afterward, reporting their findings at a final presentation.

"There is intrinsic information you get by going out and observing what happens," said Dr. Joan Bytheway, Director of STAFS, one of only six body farms in the U.S. "It is going to change a lot of preconceived ideas about fire death investigations."

The training was prompted by a 2011 report by the Texas Forensic Science Commission (TFSC) on two arson cases, which resulted in death penalty convictions for Ernest Willis and Cameron Todd Willingham in two separate cases in 1986 and 1992. Both cases were based on similar assumptions, findings and conclusions by state and local arson investigators who concluded that each man had set fire to houses and killed occupants. However, Willis' case was dismissed in 2004; Willingham was executed that same year.

The TFSC found that the two cases highlight "gaps in understanding" between fire scientists and fire investigators and stressed the need to use the scientific method in investigating fire death cases.

As a result the CCFAIA partnered with various universities - most recently Sam Houston State University - to provide ongoing training classes for state fire officials. The group plans to return to STAFS in Sept. 2016 to provide even broader research opportunities for fire marshals and investigators.

"We created scenarios from beginning to end, and we got to see what happened," Seddig said. "It was a level of reality a lot of them had never dealt with before. They learned what to expect and how to approach it."

Individuals in the class received credit for participation from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement since most fire investigators are licensed peace officers.


Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.