interFIRE Home interFIRE Home interFIRE VR Support Training Calendar Training Center Resource Center Message Board Insurance Info

What's New at ATF

A new fire research laboratory will allow more thorough fire investigations

Written by:
Ed Comeau
USA 1-413-323-6002 (tel)
1-413-323-5295 (fax)
reprinted with permission from the
NFPA Journal (Volume 94 No. 5) ©2000 NFPA
All rights reserved

The Bureau 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.

Originally, 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 in 1982.

Since that 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 U.S. cities.

To provide 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.

Recently, 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.

ATF has 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.

However, 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 (NIST).

The purpose of the meeting was to bring together the broadest perspective on fire research needs.

"We wanted 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 that need."

Following 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.

Lab needs

One of the new lab's primary functions will be to support the operations of the ATF's certified fire investigators.

"The FRL 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.

CFIs, who 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.

"The primary 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."

The FRL 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.

Structure of the lab

The FRL 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.

The official 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.

The FRL 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.

"It will 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.

Along with 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."

With the 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.

In addition, 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."

Approximately 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 field.

End result of the lab

The facility will include observation areas and classrooms that can hold 50 people. There will also be a number of support facilities and shops.

According 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.

There are 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.

Steve Austin, 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."

When the 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.

Ed Comeau is the principal writer for, 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 review board.


Home | interFIRE VR Support | Training Calendar | Training Center | Resource Center | Message Board | Insurance Info
Sponsorship Opportunities
Web Site Designed for 800 x 600 by Stonehouse Media Incorporated® Copyright © 2024 All Rights Reserved.