Fire and Explosion Investigation Graduate Program Offers Students Immersive Real-World Experience
Demand for fire investigators is heating up, and the University’s M.S. in Fire and Explosion Investigations program is preparing the next generation of professionals. The program enables students to attend live burns, learn from professionals with industry experience, and step into the role of investigator.
October 23, 2023
By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications
Francis Reynolds ’25 M.S. stands in one of the “classrooms” where he and his classmates apply what they’ve been learning as part of their coursework. This space is no ordinary classroom – the smell of fire lingers in the air, and the interior is charred. It’s the perfect space for fire science students such as Reynolds to learn.
A candidate in the University’s graduate program in fire and explosion investigation, Reynolds appreciates the opportunities he and his classmates have to go to live burns and gain field experience in a controlled environment. It is, he says, a great way to combine what they’ve learned in the classroom and to draw on their professors’ own field experience.
Reynolds, who hails from Ireland, had been interest ed in the University for years before he became a Charger. He’d become familiar with its programs while visiting family in New Haven. After earning a bachelor’s degree in forensic science in his home country, he was interested in pursuing a more specialized graduate degree.
“I find this an exciting field to be involved in,” he explains. “I enjoy the challenges with investigations and the aspects of science and mathematics used in the study of fire. The opportunities to attend live burn events have been my favorite overall and witnessing an inferno and the aftermath in real time is probably the most educational for me personally. It makes the theory learned in the classroom show its relevance in real-world scenarios.”
Sorin Iliescu, Ed.D., chair of the Department of Fire Science and Emergency Management, says the quality of the instructors is paramount. As an educator, he’s committed to ensuring that every professor brings their own expertise to the classroom. For Dr. Iliescu, that includes about a decade and a half of experience in sprinkler design and fire-protection engineering.
“I teach where I have experience,” he said. “All of our instructors have experience, and they bring that to the classroom. That goes beyond the books. Many instructors are former students. Everyone teaching has field experience.”
‘It’s a great experience’
Those instructors include Bruce Varga ’01 M.S., a distinguished lecturer of fire science who spent more than two decades with the Milford, Conn., fire department. Committed to creating opportunities for students, he works closely with the International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI) as well as the organization’s Connecticut chapter. Students have had the opportunity to attend conferences and to network with industry professionals.
Vargas also helped create the three new burn rooms on campus. Chargers staged scenarios in each one, including the scene of a college party where a fire broke out. Another room is a basement scene. It too, says Prof. Varga, challenges students to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom as they investigate a mock fire.
“Students determine where they fire started and what caused it,” he explains. “In this room, they might ask if the iron started the fire – or was it the dryer? Dryers are the number two cause of fires in the U.S. Our students regularly use these burn rooms, and it’s a great experience for them.”
‘My professors give us the opportunity to...’
The opportunities for students to apply their skills in these burn rooms are just heating up. And what if students didn’t actually have to be physically in the burn rooms to use them? That’s a question Prof. Vargas is now asking – and he’s exploring this as part of an interdisciplinary endeavor to bring virtual reality (VR) to the burn rooms.
Prof. Vargas recently gathered around a laptop with several of his colleagues and students – including Madeline Orenstein ’22, ’24 M.S. – to see what a virtual representation of what the burn rooms might look like. With this technology, instructors would be able to communicate with students through headsets. They’d be able to take students into the burn rooms virtually and lead them through scenarios.
For Orenstein, using the burn rooms has been invaluable. She enjoys the opportunity to take part in fire investigations and to learn about burn patterns. She says she’s grateful for the variety of exciting hands-on opportunities in the program.
“I have had the opportunity to go to the Connecticut fire academy to go to into the burn trailers they have and practice doing a fire investigation,” said Orenstein, a candidate in the graduate program in fire and explosion investigation. “My professors give us the opportunity to go to fire scenes if they are nearby and to get real-world experience from going to these fire scenes.”
‘The best I’ve ever experienced’
Orenstein, who also earned bachelor’s degrees in fire science and criminal justice from the University, was familiar with the graduate program and interested in continuing her education. She appreciates the small class sizes and the supportive relationships she has with her professors.
The program has also enabled Orenstein to connect with professionals in the field. From attending a live burn at the New Haven Fire Academy to taking part in a Connecticut IAAI conference, she has enjoyed networking and deepening her understanding of fire investigation.
“I also loved getting the opportunity as an undergrad at the University to attend trainings and seminars,” she said. “At the graduate level, we have had similar opportunities to learn outside of the classroom and to attend many trainings and seminars and to learn from those who are in the field currently.”
For Reynolds, Orenstein’s classmate, the program has also been rewarding. He appreciates that every class is accessible to everyone, regardless of their level of experience. He says he did not have professional or academic fire or explosive experience, but he’s been able to gain that as a Charger.
“I find my professors’ approach to teaching is the best I’ve ever experienced to date,” he said. “Most, if not all, classes have a real-life scenario that the professor has experienced personally, so they can explain how they tackled their tasks on scene, relevant to that particular class being taught. The program is not easy, but nothing worthwhile usually is.”