ATF

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Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

December 23, 2009

www.atf.gov

Forensic Fire Scenes Come to Life at ATF’s Fire Research Lab

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ATF fire engineers put out a fire after the testing is completed.

Real-world forensic techniques applied at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive (ATF)’s Fire Research Laboratory (FRL) daily result in arsonists across the nation being prosecuted for life sentences.

Progressive fire crime scene analysis, state-of-the-art technology and analytical fire investigative tools are used to determine an arsonist’s means, timeline and opportunity, said Eric Peña, senior special agent and certified fire investigator (CFI) programs manager for the laboratory.

Among the various scientific methods utilized at the FRL, the most elaborate is the large-scale crime scene reconstruction. ATF provides a controlled environment where fire investigators test their theories as to how a fire started and ultimately developed. A fire scene structure is built to scale with known props such as furnishings placed at exactly the same location as they were at the true crime scene. The full-scale structure is built to obtain additional scientific data in order to assist investigators with their theories as to how the fire started and spread. This testing is commonly referred to as “a burn.” A burn is conducted testing numerous hypotheses which connect the dots in a prosecution or proving the defendant’s version.

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A automobile fire test burn.

The FRL is housed on a 35-acre site in Ammendale, Md. This one-of-a kind fire research facility is dedicated to the specific needs of the fire investigation community. The FRL provides the necessary facilities, equipment and staff to work on reconstructions, as well as fire investigation tools such as validation of fire pattern analysis, computer fire modeling, impact of accelerants on fire growth and spread, ignition studies, electrical fire cause analysis and a wide range of other fire-related tests, Peña said.

Last year the FRL conducted 184 test experiments including numerous “burns” for criminal investigations. To qualify for a fire reconstruction test at the FRL, there has to be an open ATF investigation. FRL staff then evaluate whether or not reconstruction testing would provide useful scientific information to the investigation team that can be used in court.

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Another test burn involving a room with furniture at the ATF Fire Research Laboratory.

Depending on the scope and size of the test, it usually takes between two weeks for a small reconstruction test and upwards of six months for larger tests. Therefore, not all FRL requests merit reconstruction testing.

The smallest fire test typically involves single items such as candles or pools of accelerants. The largest involve three-story structures that are lengths up to 60 feet long. Some of the larger reconstruction tests conducted at the FRL include arson cases involving apartment complexes, hotel, retail and church fires.

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