Some people pursue a narrow career path that they are passionate about and rarely consider the possibilities of trying something new. ATF Management Analyst Joseph Bertoni is not one of them.
For the first 18 years of his professional life, Bertoni climbed the ranks as a local first responder and reached multiple career milestones in the process. Yet he wanted to do more to keep communities safe from violent crime. He took a risk and followed his dreams to build a successful second career at ATF and made history by creating an innovative law enforcement system.
Local First Responder
Bertoni grew up in northern Virginia as the son of Italian immigrant father and an American mother, who encouraged him to take pride in his work and find ways to give back to his local community. As a young man, he searched for job opportunities that allowed him to keep his neighborhood safe and in 1981 he became a fire fighter with the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department.
During his 18-year tenure there, Bertoni used forensic and investigative techniques to solve arson-related crimes while serving in numerous roles such as fire investigator, canine handler and deputy fire marshal. Along the way, he enhanced his technical skills by participating in multiple interagency cases and trainings.
While serving Fairfax County, Bertoni regularly worked with local ATF certified fire investigators (CFIs) to investigate local fire, arson, and explosives cases. He used these opportunities to share best practices, learn new techniques and expanded his network of colleagues.
Most people would be thrilled to achieve this much success in their professional lives. However, Bertoni refused to become complacent and began to explore other career fields.
Leaving any established job to work for a federal law enforcement agency is not easy. But for a local first responder, joining a federal agency requires a new approach to public safety. Bertoni was not deterred and called upon his professional contacts to learn about new openings within ATF.
In 1999, Bertoni’s efforts paid off when he applied and accepted an intelligence research specialist (IRS) job with ATF’s U.S. Bomb Data Center, the team responsible for tracking arson and explosive cases. His new role required him to step out of his comfort zone and learn new skills like software design and program management to support his team’s goals. He took advantage of training and education programs to meet the demands of the job.
At the time, a wave of suspicious fires had destroyed historically African American churches between 1995 to 1996, with at least 27 similar cases reported. Members of congress and local communities became concerned about the increasing number of arson-related crimes plaguing the South. Also, at the time, first responders were searching for ways to improve intelligence sharing across jurisdictions.
In May 1996, the House Judiciary Committee held hearings to discuss the state and federal response to the incidents, resulting in the creation of several joint task forces and the passing of the Church Arson Prevention Act. That same year, Congress designated ATF as the sole agency responsible for collecting and tracking suspicious church fires. However, no single organization had a tool that could track all these investigations. As Bertoni had started working on these issues, he came up with the idea to leverage new technologies to meet the agency’s growing responsibilities.
Innovative Problem Solver
Bertoni generated a few ideas to amplify the agency’s investigative efforts by creating a new state-of-the-art system. At the time, ATF used a nationwide arson and explosives incident database called AEXIS. However, this older system wasn’t able to exchange investigation data with other law enforcement agencies. Bertoni quickly realized something more was needed to meet the congressional mandate.
Drawing on his new skills as a software designer and program manager, as well as his long experience as a fire investigator, Bertoni proposed the development of the Bombing Arson Tracking System (BATS). BATS is a free web-based case management system that tracks and shares intelligence reports on arson and explosives incidents across the country.
Bertoni’s proposal included adding geospatial technology and mapping features to BATS, enabling users to quickly identify wider patterns of criminal activity across state and local lines. His proposal was approved, and over the next 2.5 years Bertoni worked closely with his team to build, test and launch the system. The first BATS users were members of the Maine State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Glendale, Arizona Fire Department.
After getting the new technology off the ground, Bertoni’s next goal was to allow state and local police to access the system as verified users, so that every level of law enforcement could benefit from the shared intelligence. This new challenge required leadership approval and extensive interagency support. So Bertoni created a strategic network of like-minded professionals, mentors and coaches to advance the program goals.
Going Full Circle
Building BATS was the first step in enhancing the way ATF carries out its arson and explosives mission. Once leadership approved the expansion of the system, Bertoni’s final challenge was to onboard state and local law enforcement partners and train them on the new system.
Bertoni and his team took their concept on the road and provided free demonstrations to local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. They educated their fellow investigators on the benefits of BATS and encouraged them to use it as one-stop solution to their arson and explosives investigative needs.
Thanks to their hard work and creative problem solving, BATS officially launched in 2004 with 246 users. As of 2020, there are 11,498 registered BATS users and 2,343 registered law enforcement partner agencies.
Bertoni’s success was no surprise to Marion Burrows, his former mentor from ATF’s Intelligence and Information Systems Division. She recalls that Bertoni was “readily able to tap into his technical skills from previous jobs, pair them with revolutionary ideas and implement positive change to support the mission.” Burrows also noted that Bertoni had a positive influence on his peers, who often referred to him as “Joe BATS” because of his dedication to the new law enforcement system.
During each step of his history-making career, Joseph Bertoni leveraged his existing skills and sought out new learning opportunities. While his story is incredible, Bertoni is not alone; many other mid-level professionals have found a home in ATF and built successful second careers here. We are a stronger organization today because of them.