of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) is charged with conducting fire
investigations in the United States. Although just looking at the name
of the bureau makes one wonder how "fire" falls under its mandate.
it didn't. In 1970, however, the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970
gave ATF the authority to investigate and prosecute incidents involving
explosive devices. Shortly afterwards, enterprising ATF agents managed
to prosecute a case where the defendants used gasoline to burn a commercial
building, according to ATF Special Agent Ed Garrison. The theory was
that gasoline, when combined with air, met the definition of an explosive,
and thus qualified as a crime, he says. This brought ATF into the world
of fire investigations, a role that was formalized by the Glenn Amendment
time, ATF has created a network of 80 certified fire investigators (CFI)
across the nation. CFIs are agents with extensive training in fire behavior
from noted scientists in the field, who have a fleet of specialized
vehicles strategically located across the country that allows them to
respond to fires and provide the logistical support that these incidents
require. In addition, ATF has established arson task forces in 15 major
the support that large-scale incidents need, a rapid response and four
National Response Teams (NRT) were established. These teams of which
the CFIs are a critical component, are called upon to support local
jurisdictions during large-scale or complex fire investigations.
ATF recognized that they needed even more support in the form of scientific
analysis of fires. The amount of scientific knowledge about fire behavior
was growing rapidly, and the bureau needed a laboratory in which they
could complete the complex analysis necessary in criminal investigations.
the second-oldest operating laboratory in the federal government, established
in 1886 by the Oleomargarine Act. The lab, which focused on alcohol
and tobacco, was located in the attic of the Treasury building and staffed
by two scientists. From these early beginnings evolved the current ATF
National Laboratory, which is really five laboratories in three cities.
These labs analyze alcohol, tobacco, firearms, explosives, and fire
debris; conduct trace evidence comparisons; and examine questioned documents
and fingerprints, among other services.
more was needed. In November 1997, ATF began to develop the concept
and design parameters for a new ATF laboratory, to be called the Fire
Research Laboratory (FRL), for which Congress authorized $62 million
in funding. When it came time to start the blueprint for the facility,
more than 70 people from the fire service, fire research community,
and the public and private sector from around the world were invited
to give their input. Experts from the United States, France, United
Kingdom, Italy, and Sweden participated, as did representatives of organizations,
such as NFPA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology
of the meeting was to bring together the broadest perspective on fire
to identify what was out there, understand what other facilities existed
so that we wouldn't duplicate what was in place," says Rick Tontarski,
laboratory chief for the Fire Research Laboratory. "We wanted to find
out what the broad fire community needed and see how ATF could meet
the forum, a design team composed of representatives of NIST, Factory
Mutual, Underwriters Laboratories, Hughes Associates, and the University
of Maryland began developing the technical parameters for the building.
the new lab's primary functions will be to support the operations of
the ATF's certified fire investigators.
will be the first of its kind," says Dr. Jim Quintiere, the John Bryan
Professor of Fire Protection Engineering at the University of Maryland.
Dr. Quintiere has been training ATF's certified fire investigators since
1992 and is familiar with the demands these investigators face in the
field. "It will bring some rationality to fire investigation," he says.
receive initial training and attend refresher training every two years,
use a variety of analytical tools, such as computer fire modeling, to
help them determine cause and origin. However, there's still a lot they
can't do because they can't accurately recreate the fire scene. This
is where the FRL can play a critical role.
focus of the facility is to give direct case support for fire investigations,
not only for ATF but the community," says Tontarski. "The research will
be applied research…It will serve as a bridge to develop practical tools
that investigators can use on the scene."
will also be capable of testing and sophisticated field modeling, for
which NIST has provided support on incidents in the past. Because many
of the scenes that ATF investigates are either large or complex, it's
been difficult to find a facility that can help recreate a fire scene
and analyze its fire growth and spread through live burns. Using a variety
of burn cells that can be configured in a number of ways, the new FRL
will be able to recreate such real-world conditions.
of the lab
is being built in Beltsville, Maryland, as part of the National Laboratory
Center, which will also house the Forensic Science Laboratory-Washington
and the Alcohol and Tobacco Laboratory. These two labs, currently in
Rockville, Maryland, will see their working area expand from 35,000
square feet (3,252 square meters) to more than 110,000 square feet (10,219
square meters). Overall, the facility will encompass 176,000 square
feet (16,351 square meters) on a 35-acre (14-hectare) site.
groundbreaking was held on December 8, 1999, and plans call for the
FRL to be operational by January 2002. At the groundbreaking, Congressman
Hoyer reiterated his support for the work of ATF and its efforts to
reduce the impact of arson in the United States. He particularly noted
the work of Director John McGaw, who has brought ATF to the forefront
of fire investigations during his six-year tenure.
will occupy 50,000 square feet (4,645 square meters) of the new facility.
It will contain a number of test cells, the largest of which will measure
130 by 130 by 55 feet (40 by 40 by 17 meters). Equipped with a calorimeter
that is roughly the size of a basketball court, it will be capable of
moving 170,000 cubic feet (4,814 cubic meters) of air per minute.
be three times larger than any existing test cell in the world," says
Tontarski. In this cell, researchers will be able to recreate fires
that involve multiple rooms, vehicles, or even a two-story structure,
allowing them to measure values, such as heat release rates, and to
observe how a fire develops under circumstances identical to those in
the field. Until now, this wasn't possible.
the large test cell, there will be a medium test cell designed to accommodate
four calorimeters, each measuring 130 by 80 by 30 feet (40 by 24 by
9 meters). "All of the calorimeters will give us a range from the smallest
fire up to a two-story structure," says Tontarski. "We'll have the whole
thermal range covered."
variety of test cells and the flexibility they'll provide in configuring
the tests, the FRL will also be able to let the test fires burn for
extended periods of time. "We'll be able to take the fire from the initial
stages and let it burn to completion," Tontarski explains.
the new lab will have a small burn area that will allow for bench scale
fire measurements, and adjacent to the medium burn cell will be modular
burn cells, which will allow researchers to set up a number of different
configurations, such as an 8- by 10-foot (2- by 3-meter) room, where,
according to Tontarski, "we can do 'quick and dirty' studies before
putting it into the test areas."
20 people, representing a mixture of complementary disciplines and skills
will staff the FRL. The staff will include a number of chemists and
professionals from disciplines, such as mechanical, electrical, and
chemical engineering. A physical scientist, physicist, and metallurgist
will also be assigned to the FRL. Plans also call for as many as 17
fire protection engineers on staff who will work with agents in the
result of the lab
will include observation areas and classrooms that can hold 50 people.
There will also be a number of support facilities and shops.
to Tontarski, the goal is to make the burn labs as open as possible
to researchers. ATF is hoping to develop research assistantships with
various universities in which ATF would direct graduate students to
the benefit of the fire community, the students, and the university.
also plans to accommodate visiting scientists. A professor may be able
to take a sabbatical and bring his or her theoretical knowledge to ATF,
helping the FRL staff expand their knowledge, while working on research
that might not be possible in the academic world.
director of Governmental Affairs for the International Association of
Arson Investigators, has been involved with the development of the lab
since its conception. "We see an opportunity for a fire research triangle
with the laboratory on one side, NIST on another, and the U.S. Fire
Administration on a third," he says. "The whole Washington metro area
will become a national center for fire research."
ATF Fire Research Laboratory opens in 2002, fire investigations will
take a leap forward. In turn, applying the research conducted will improve
the way science is used in the realm of fire investigations.
is the principal writer for writer-tech.com, a technical writing firm.
He is the former chief fire investigator for NFPA and has worked with
ATF on a number of incidents. He has been closely involved in the development
of interFIRE VR from its inception and is a member of its web site editorial