[cifnmedia] ATF Opens New Fire Research Laboratory

  • From: Sean & Kimberly Aaron <cifn@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: CIFN LIST <cifnmedia@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Wed, 19 Nov 2003 21:00:06 -0800 (PST)

Updated: 11-18-2003 09:33:54 AM

ATF Opens New Fire Research Laboratory

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Associated Press

AMMENDALE, Md. (AP) -- The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives 
showed off its new state-of-the-art Fire Research Laboratory on Monday by 
throwing a barbecue. Sort of. 

To demonstrate the lab's capabilities, ATF investigators torched a mock-up of a 
living room, doused the flames and walked a chemical-sniffing dog through the 
charred remains to determine the source of the blaze. 

The new facility _ part of a $130 million ATF crime lab outside Washington _ 
will help law enforcement agencies nationwide learn more about fires and how to 
investigate them. 

Lab chief Rick Tontarski said researchers will reconstruct fire scenes, test 
the burn characteristics of materials and train arson investigators. 

``This is a one-of-kind resource for fire investigators,'' he said. 

Inside the hangar-sized ``burn room,'' investigators can build a structure up 
to two stories high, and then, set it ablaze and study what happens to it as 
it's consumed by flame. For instance, investigators may examine how smoke moves 
from room to room to determine why someone died in one area but a person in the 
next room was unharmed. 

Above the burn room looms a massive, soot-blackened exhaust hood which is 60 
feet wide. 

ATF research engineer David Sheppard said it sucks up smoke, passing through it 
through ducts bristled with instruments that can take more than 1,900 
simultaneous measurements. Scientists can track the intensity of the blaze and 
the release of toxic gasses, along with a host of other data, he said. 

For more modest studies, an adjacent room is host to a smaller burn area, where 
semi-charred walls are scrawled with graffiti like ``burn baby burn'' and 
``burn to learn.'' Forensic examinations are done elsewhere in the lab, 
including tests on how mundane items like plywood and other building materials 
burn. Findings are shared with arson investigation units throughout the 

The ATF takes part in about 1,500 fire investigations a year, and up to 40 
percent of those become full arson investigations, said Tontarski. 

The new lab also boasts environmentally friendly measures to keep the toxic 
discharges from test blazes minimal, Tontarski said. Smoke is filtered and 
toxins removed before being released into the air. Water used to douse fires is 
treated in holding tanks and recycled. 

The facility has been taking criminal cases since September and training 
investigators since August. 


Sean A. Aaron (CIFN*1)
Central Illinois Fire Network

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