The first time Kaleb Vonderwell interviewed for an Arson Investigator position with the Office of the State Fire Marshal within Indiana’s Department of Homeland Security, he didn’t get the position, but he told the hiring committee, “I’ll be back.” Vonderwell said he wanted to take strides towards improving himself and increasing his knowledge in the field so the next time he applied for the position he could show the hiring committee that not only did he have the technical knowledge, but also the drive and determination to succeed.
Fire Chief Recommendation
That determination and a recommendation from his (now) former fire chief led him to Eastern Kentucky University’s online fire, arson and explosion investigation degree program. “I was working as a firefighter and wanted to get my Certified Fire and Explosion Investigator (CFEI) certification so I could move into an investigation position, but I was having a hard time getting enough points to qualify to take the exam,” said Vonderwell.
“My chief encouraged me to look at the EKU program. Initially, I was just interested in a couple of classes to qualify for the exam. However, after talking with my enrollment advisor I was encouraged by the short time it would take to complete a second bachelor’s. Also, having this degree will lead to me being more credible on the witness stand,” he said.
Positive Online Experience at EKU
Vonderwell had taken online classes when completing his associates and first bachelor’s degree at another university and did not enjoy it. He explained that he was young, working multiple jobs and did not have the best time management skills. Initially, the thought of doing more online coursework was a deterrent. However, he said the drive to get to where he is now and the encouragement of those familiar with EKU’s program helped him overcome those concerns.
“I’ve enjoyed my experience with EKU a lot better than the first time I took online classes. It has been a totally different experience,” explained Vonderwell. “It also helped that the subject matter in my first class, FSE 120 – Fire Behavior and Combustion, really interested me. As a firefighter, I had always found myself asking ‘why’ in different situations. Now I had the opportunity to get the answers to my questions.”
Vonderwell also had concerns about the required, on-campus summer residency. However, that has become his favorite part of the program. “The knowledge I’ve obtained during the residency is far and above anything I could have gotten anywhere else. The days are jammed packed with hands-on learning opportunities, and the help I received from the professors resulted in more knowledge than I expected from the question I had,” he said.
“During the hands-on training, the professors were really good about encouraging us to use deductive reasoning, which is an important part of the investigation line of work. The professors gave us the freedom to figure it out, but also stepped in and got us back on track if we were way off base. We were required to prove our hypothesis with evidence, which was a huge confidence builder,” said Vonderwell.
Vonderwell also appreciated the opportunity to pull together everything he had learned in class. “As we processed the scene, it was like a light bulb clicked and everything we had been learning came together in real life.”
Another benefit of the summer residency was the connections he made with fellow students. Vonderwell still meets virtually once a week with two students from his summer residency group to review class notes, ask questions, and help each other through the program. He also has a network of contacts all over the country he can call on for professional help and advice.
Those connections and a professional network of classmates, colleagues and EKU alumni led him back to the Indiana State Fire Marshal’s office when looking for an internship. While completing his internship, his now supervisor and EKU alumnus, Section Chief for the Office of the State Fire Marshal in Indiana, Clayton Kinder, invited him to interview for an arson investigator position. During his second interview, Vonderwell was able to display a better understanding of the field due to the knowledge and confidence he gained from EKU’s program.
“I invited him to interview for an arson investigator position after seeing the amount of effort he’s put forward to increase his knowledge in the field,” said Kinder.
“I had a great experience at EKU and believe my degree helped me get hired and be promoted, Kinder said. “Knowing the instructors Kaleb has worked with, as well as the quality of the program was certainly a consideration when hiring him for the position. It also helps that the fire, arson and explosion investigation program is directly related to our field.”
Thankful for Support
Vonderwell will graduate after completion of his second summer residency in July 2022. Reflecting on his experience in the program, Vonderwell is thankful for his professors’ support in and out of the classroom.
“Bill Hicks and Greg Gorbett are about the best in the industry. Their personal and professional experience backs up everything I learned in the book. They give you the information and space to let you learn but are there for support, he said. “Even outside of the program, I know I can reach out for professional help, and they will respond. They have a true passion for the field and that shows through in everything they do for the program.”
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