Meet Mike Moulden, Lecturer in Cranfield Forensics Institute, practising fire investigator and leader of our fire investigation MSc modules.
“When I was young, there were only three channels on TV and everything was about good vs evil, from Buck Rogers and Champion the Wonder Horse to war movies and westerns. My parents got me into the Famous Five books, which were a similar kind of thing, and then when I was about 10 or 11 they bought me the entire works of Sherlock Holmes and that was it for me – that was what I wanted to do.”
Mike is a returning alumnus, having graduated from Cranfield Defence and Security in 2000 with an MSc in Forensic Engineering and Science. His impressive career has seen him work in crime scene investigation for UK police forces, as a forensic expert for the United Nations, and supporting military intelligence and special operations in Afghanistan. Among the high-profile cases he has worked on as a forensic investigator are Grenfell Tower and Germanwings Flight 9525.
Can you tell us a little about your role within Cranfield Forensics Institute?
“I lead our current fire investigation MSc modules – Introduction to Fire Investigation and Fire, Explosions and their Investigation – and lecture on various programmes around crime scene investigation and advanced evidence collection, including our Fire Investigation short course. Outside of Cranfield, I’m a full-time fire investigator and involved in training police officers in crime scene investigation, as well as chair of BACSI, the British Association of Crime Scene Investigators.”
Tell me more about Cranfield’s fire investigation teaching.
“Introduction to Fire Investigation is designed as a starting point for people who want to be a fire investigator. It covers basic fire science and what to do at a fire scene. We have a live burn that students have to excavate, and we look at what you can and can’t do with DNA and fingerprint evidence at that. We also invite external experts in and study real-life case studies from mine and their experience. Fire, Explosions and their Investigation is more specialist, and looks at marine fire investigation, air accident investigation, civil explosions, bombs, and pyrotechnics.”
How does fire investigation work? Doesn’t a fire destroy everything it touches?
“It’s a common myth that fire destroys all evidence. Of course, fire can and does degrade or destroy evidence, but in the process of doing so it creates its own evidence. Burn pattern can indicate an area of origin, and by applying the scientific method we can then look at sources of ignition and the first fuel ignited in that area. If an accelerant like petrol or white spirit is used, that can leave a very distinctive burn pattern. Sometimes you find that evidence has been protected by the way in which the fire has taken hold. For example, a picture might fall off the wall early on during a fire because the string it is hung with burns through, and that can protect whatever is underneath from the heat and flames. So, as a fire investigator, you could lift up a picture that’s absolutely burned to a crisp and underneath is pristine carpet with blood or a footwear mark on it. And of course, there may be other information to allow you to formulate a hypothesis to go on as well – fire alarm activation, CCTV camera footage, social media images, witness statements etc.”
What is it about this field that interests you most?
“I enjoy the challenge fire presents. I don’t want to seem flippant, but I got to the stage in my career as a crime scene investigator where I encountered the same things over and over again, and it wasn’t necessarily challenging me anymore. Fire is constantly challenging, because each fire is unique and the fact most of the evidence has been destroyed or altered means you have to work really hard in difficult circumstances to get a result. Everything is covered in ash and fire debris, and so recovering DNA, fingerprints and footwear such that you can get a successful conviction or exoneration for the crime is really, really difficult – and that’s why I like it. I’ve done a lot of things in my career because I get bored easily, but I’ve not got bored with fire at all. It’s constantly challenging and interesting, and there’s so much more to learn. I’ve been in forensics for 30 years, yet I still feel like I know nothing about fire investigation if I’m honest. I’m always learning.”
What drew you to forensics – and in particular fire investigation – as a career path?
“When I was young, there were only three channels on TV and everything was about good vs evil, from Buck Rogers and Champion the Wonder Horse to war movies and westerns. My parents got me into the Famous Five books which were a similar kind of thing, and then when I was about 10 or 11 they bought me the entire works of Sherlock Holmes and that was it for me – that was what I wanted to do. I didn’t necessarily understand all the words within it at that age, but I understood the concept. I found a book at a jumble sale called The Science of Policing which was about fingerprints, as that was the extent of the forensic technology then. I originally wanted to be a police officer; my sister was a police officer and my dad was in the Navy & Prison service, so there was a family history there. But at the time the recruitment criteria were quite restrictive: I was too short for the Met Police and didn’t have 20:20 vision, which meant Dorset Police wouldn’t take me. So I lost my way for a while and ended up training as a plumber until my sister suggested I study engineering with the aim of getting into investigating road traffic accidents. For my first-year degree project, I contacted Hertfordshire Police and they invited me to come and work with their accident investigation team, and that was the start of it.”
Why did you choose to work at Cranfield?
“I studied for my MSc at Cranfield Defence and Security in 1999/2000, and have been coming back pretty much ever since in some form or another. What I love about Cranfield is how practical it is, and I think it’s this credibility that has kept me involved with the university for so long. I’m not an academic in any way, shape or form; I like to say I’m a ‘prac-ademic’. That’s why I chose Cranfield originally, and why I still choose it today – you’re taught by people who have been there and actually done what you’re learning, rather than just read a book about it. It’s also the only university in the UK where you can blow things up and fire guns!”
What do you like best about your job?
“I like the fact that each case is my case. I get to do a bit of everything, from gathering witness statements, reviewing CCTV and looking at lab results, to writing the end report – the whole investigation.”
You’ve done so much during your career so far. Is there anything you’ve worked on that particularly stands out in your memory?
“There is so much. I was on Grenfell Tower, which was amazingly interesting from a professional point of view, and a privilege to be involved in. It’s something I’m very proud to have been a small part of, and I get a bit emotional thinking about it sometimes. Even for someone who’s done as much as I have and seen the things I’ve seen, it was impactful. From a training point of view, my best case was a murder that happened in Bournemouth that had every type of forensic evidence you can imagine. There was a fire, but the fire didn’t take hold. There were footprints, fingerprints, blood, murder weapons, fibres – I talk about that case a lot in my training sessions.”
And finally, what do you do to unwind when you’re not working?
“I don’t have a lot of free time because I’m so busy – I’m a bit of a workaholic, but that’s just because my work is important to me. I used to be into fitness: I played a lot of rugby and ran triathlons, but I’ve let that slip in favour of a bit of a quieter life. I like to go out for dinner or a walk with my wife and children – simple things really. I spend a lot of time in the car driving, as the scenes I travel to as a fire investigator can be anywhere in the UK, and then I listen to podcasts. They tend to be either crime-based or fire scene podcasts, although I sometimes listen to the Diary of a CEO. If I watch TV it’s usually factual documentaries and not forensics dramas. They just annoy me when you get one person doing 12 people’s jobs and not very well at that... and my wife moans that I slag them off rather than enjoying it!”