December 11, 2013
Forensics and Fire
PEs at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have one mission: finding the truth.
BY DANIELLE BOYKIN
When a fire strikes, it can destroy property, displace individuals, and result in a tragic loss of life. More than 3,000 people are killed and more than 90,000 citizens and firefighters are injured each year during incidents involving fire. Losses associated with these fires—often preventable—add up to more than $300 billion annually, according the National Institute of Standards.
If state and local fire investigators and prosecutors need answers in complex cases, the engineers and scientists at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' Fire Research Laboratory come to their aid. Professional engineers are playing a major role in fulfilling the agency's mission to protect the public.
The ATF was created to serve as a tax collection agency targeting distilled spirits and tobacco products. Agents were charged with pursuing tax evaders and conducting criminal investigations. Many people associate the bureau with its most famous special agent—Eliot Ness—who took on Chicago's organized crime leader Al Capone and other criminals during the Prohibition Era. The violence associated with this period would lead the agency to expand its focus to firearms and explosives.
A Best Kept Secret
Completed in 2003, the FRL sits on a 35-acre site in Ammendale, Maryland, a suburb of the nation's capitol. Inside the lab, fire scenes are reconstructed to scale, allowing engineers and fire investigators to control the environment and run tests to prove or disprove theories of how a fire was started, spread, and its patterns. The FRL serves as a central repository for fire investigation research data and publishes scientific and investigative findings. It also provides training and education programs.
What factors trigger an ATF fire investigation? Fatalities, injuries suffered by a firefighter, and property loss in excess of $1 million. If a scene is technically complex or too large for local or state authorities to handle, a member of Allen's team gets involved with the investigation. In fiscal year 2011, 72 fire research cases were processed and completed, and more than 4,000 forensics cases were processed (includes ballistics and DNA research in other laboratories).
When the agency gets a case, a fire research engineer goes to the scene. He assists investigators with the fire origin and cause determinations by performing calculations, doing computer models, and running tests. "We work through the scientific method and we are advocates for our analysis," says Brian Grove, P.E. "The results are what they are. We just convey them to investigators and during a trial as fact."
The ATF is in a unique position to assist fire investigations throughout the country by working with its state and local partners. A proper investigation, says Grove, requires not only scientific knowledge, but also a strong background in fire dynamics. A professional has to understand how a fire ignites, how it spreads, and how a building reacts to that fire.
A proper investigation can also be very expensive. States and localities often don't have the resources that the FRL has to perform thorough investigations. "They might not have a fire protection engineer on staff, but they can work with an ATF-certified fire investigator who has access to our engineers and the laboratory," Grove explains.
When state and local fire marshals or local ATF field offices need more resources for a large fire or explosion scene, the ATF's National Response Team is activated to participate in the investigation. The NRT responded to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the Oklahoma City Murrah Federal Building bombing, and to the Pentagon crash site immediately after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
The NRT has up to 20 members, including fire investigators, explosives specialists, explosives enforcement officers, engineers, and chemists. The team, split into two groups, participates in the cause-and-origin investigation and assists with interviews. "The ATF has had hundreds of national response callouts and we have gotten pretty efficient at working large scenes just because we do this fairly routinely," says Grove. In fiscal year 2011, the team responded to 11 incidents with property damage estimated at $92 million.
When fires destroyed 10 churches in east Texas at the start of January 2010—resulting in up to $1 million in damages at each site—the pattern pointed to arson. The NRT was activated to help the local fire and police departments and the ATF field office to investigate the cause and origin of the fires. In February, the investigations would lead to the arrest and federal charges against Jason Bourque and Daniel McAllister for the string of arsons. In 2011, Bourque and McAllister were convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the crimes.
Not Your Typical Engineer
An engineering license is not required to work at the Fire Research Laboratory, but engineers benefit from having the credential. "Licensure is not mandated for the job, but we definitely encourage our engineers to get licensed," says Allen.
The PE license often bolsters the validity of the work that they do on cases, particularly if it goes to court. "A license can bring more credibility to our work and when we testify as expert witnesses," he adds.
Mission: Seek the Truth
The death of a four-month old child in Iowa in 2009 highlights the serious and often sensitive nature of the cases that FRL engineers are charged with investigating, says Keller. On August 4, local police and fire responded to a call to put out a fire that originated in the kitchen of a Newton home. They discovered a deceased child after the fire was extinguished. He had been placed on a glass stovetop in his infant car seat to keep him out of reach from the family dog, according to a police news release. The infant died of thermal injuries, but there were no signs of physical abuse. Was the child's death an unfortunate accident or was a crime committed?
Keller realizes that the lives of other people are at risk, particularly when someone could be charged with a crime. "You don't want any of your analysis to support an invalid hypothesis that is going to result in someone becoming incarcerated when the person shouldn't be," he says. "We are focused on an analysis that ensures that a proper process is in place to provide a correct answer in the end."
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