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The ATF Fire Research Laboratory: A New Forensic Resource for Fire-Scene Investigations by Donahue (Forensic Science Communications, January 2002)

The ATF Fire Research Laboratory: A New Forensic Resource for Fire-Scene Investigations by Donahue (Forensic Science Communications, January 2002)

January 2002 - Volume 4 - Number 1

Research and Technology

The ATF Fire Research Laboratory: A New Forensic Resource for Fire-Scene Investigations

Michael L. Donahue
Forensic Fire Specialist
Fire Research Laboratory
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms
Rockville, Maryland

Introduction| New ATF National Laboratory Center Complex
Environmental Systems
| Technological Benefits
Fire Research Laboratory Vision Statement


Arson is an insidious crime that annually claims the lives of hundreds of Americans and costs billions of dollars. Research is crucial to understanding the scientific principles associated with fire ignition, its growth, and its spread. This information is critical for accurate fire-scene reconstruction and to develop reliable, scientifically valid theories for effective criminal investigations and prosecutions. The initial concept of a Fire Research Laboratory dedicated to advancing the science of fire investigation developed from a demonstrated need by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF)-certified fire investigators to reconstruct fire scenes in order to identify scientifically based theories for fire ignition and development. In the fall of 1997, ATF organized an International Conference on Fire Research for Fire Investigation in cooperation with the University of Maryland’s Department of Fire Protection Engineering, the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Building and Fire Research Laboratory, and Hughes Associates, Incorporated, a fire-protection engineering consulting firm based in Baltimore, Maryland. Approximately 70 leading authorities from the fields of fire research, investigation, and education from the United States and five foreign countries attended the conference. The result of the conference included the following goals:

  • To assess the current state of the art of fire investigation and its use of scientific principles and methodologies
  • To identify fire-investigation needs for research and education
  • To recommend the role the Fire Research Laboratory should play in advancing fire investigation and research
  • To recommend capabilities and staffing for the Fire Research Laboratory to successfully accomplish its mission

At the present time there are no fire-research facilities in the United States, or elsewhere, dedicated to the unique forensic needs of the fire-investigation community. The Fire Research Laboratory will provide the necessary facilities, equipment, and staff to work on fire-investigation issues that include fire-scene-reconstruction, flashover studies, validation of fire-pattern analysis indicators, impact of accelerants on fire growth and spread, ignition studies, and electrical fire cause analysis.

The Fire Research Laboratory will conduct forensic research, case support, training, and education for fire investigation and analysis for ATF-certified fire investigators, prosecutors, and the fire-investigation community. The Laboratory will provide forensic fire analysis to help investigators accurately recreate the fire scene and study various potential ignition scenarios to determine the origin and cause of fires. In addition, applied research will be conducted that could develop practical tools that fire investigators can use on the scene.

The new laboratory’s technical planning and development are in partnership with the University of Maryland’s Department of Fire Protection Engineering, the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Building and Fire Research Laboratory, and the Factory Mutual Research Corporation. The Fire Research Laboratory has the following goals:

  • To serve as a national and international model for forensic fire research
  • To conduct scientific research directed at determining fire causes, fire development, and other fire phenomena that validate fire-scene indicators and improve fire-evidence analysis
  • To establish a central repository of fire investigation test and research data
  • To develop an internationally recognized research and education center for the advancement of knowledge and technology transfer related to fire-cause
    investigation and fire-scene reconstruction
  • To operate as a full-scale testing laboratory conducting reconstruction analysis to determine where additional research on fire science and fire investigation is needed

The Fire Research Laboratory will work in cooperation with the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Building and Fire Research Laboratory, the International Association of Arson Investigators, the United States Fire Administration, the National Fire Academy, and the National Fire Protection Association to develop enhanced investigative, prosecutive, and training methodologies.

New ATF National Laboratory Center Complex

The Fire Research Laboratory will join two existing laboratories in ATF’s new National Laboratory Center complex on a 35-acre site in Ammendale, Maryland. The National Laboratory Center will house the Alcohol and Tobacco Laboratory, the Forensic Science Laboratory Washington, and the new Fire Research Laboratory. The Fire Research Laboratory, scheduled to open the spring of 2003, will occupy approximately 50,000 square feet of the facility and will include three fire-test (burn) cells as well as administrative office space.

An artist's rendering of a long building in a wooded area.
Figure 1. The new ATF National Laboratory Center complex will provide 176,000 square feet of space to accommodate the Forensic, Alcohol and Tobacco, and Fire Research Laboratories. Click here to view enlarged image.

Scientists with expertise in mechanical, chemical, electrical, materials, and fire protection engineering as well as in physics and metallurgy will staff the laboratory. The scientists will also attend a comprehensive fire, safety, and emergency-response training program at the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute. This course is similar to that required for industrial fire brigades and emergency-response teams. The program complies with occupational safety and health regulations and National Fire Protection Association standards.

The Laboratory will provide fire scientists, engineers, and investigators with the capability to perform standard and unique tests ranging from small-scale fire tests to full-scale testing of residential structures. It will have several large test cells (rooms) where full-scale test fires can be conducted. This unique capability will provide ATF the versatility necessary to reconstruct and test key aspects of most of the fire scenarios encountered by fire investigators in the field.

The Laboratory will be equipped with state-of-the-art hood and exhaust systems, data acquisition systems, and instrumentation to measure heat-release rate, burning rate, heat flux, and temperatures of burning materials. The largest test cell will measure 130 x 130 x 55 feet (40 x 40 x 17 meters). Equipped with a calorimeter that is approximately the size of a basketball court, it will be capable of moving approximately 170,000 cubic feet (4,814 cubic meters) of air per minute. In this cell, researchers will be able to re-create fires that involve multiple rooms, vehicles, or even two-story structures. This will allow them to observe how a fire develops under circumstances similar to those in the field. In addition to the large test cell, there will be a medium test cell designed to accommodate three calorimeters, each measuring 130 x 80 x 30 feet (40 x 24 x 9 meters). These calorimeters will be used to test such items as household furnishings and small vehicles.

In addition to the large and medium test cells, the Laboratory will have re-configurable small-scale test areas and bench-scale test equipment that can be used to predict large-scale fire behavior and perform computer fire modeling for use in fire-scene reconstruction and test validation.

The Laboratory will also use a 1 to 10 scale model of its medium and large burn cells (including hood systems) to effectively predict fire behavior and smoke movement within the laboratory.

Additional support space in the Fire Research Laboratory will include the following areas:

  • An electrical testing laboratory to facilitate testing and failure analysis of residential and commercial electrical products, components, equipment, and wiring
  • A state-of-the-art fire-control room, fire-safety suppression system, and on-site air and water pollution-treatment facilities
  • Classrooms and training centers
  • Support spaces including shop areas, locker rooms and showers, instrument rooms, conditioning rooms, construction and test materials storage, and evidence storage

Environmental Systems

Photograph of three firemen observing a house in flames.
Figure 2. Fire investigators need to reconstruct fire scenes to identify scientifically based theories of fire ignition and development. Click here to view enlarged image.

The Fire Research Laboratory will be constructed with state-of-the-art environmental systems that will clean exhaust air before it is released into the atmosphere. Most tests will require burning only small objects such as household furnishings and appliances. For these tests, exhaust air is anticipated to be cleaner than a residential fireplace chimney. These tests will occur only a few times a day, and each test will last approximately 15 minutes. For large tests, such as reconstructing the burning of several rooms, the facility is designed to retain smoke until it can be safely cleaned and exhausted to the outside atmosphere.

The Laboratory will also be equipped with water-treatment
facilities to collect and recycle all water used for suppression of fire tests to eliminate the impact of runoff to the environment.

Technological Benefits

Photograph of two firemen preparing to enter a burned building.
Figure 3. ATF investigators gather fire debris evidence at the scene of a fire. Click here to view enlarged image.

The Fire Research Laboratory will provide a controlled environment where fire-investigation theories can be evaluated and fire-cause determination scenarios can be reconstructed and tested on a large scale by fire scientists, engineers, and investigators. Lab personnel will also provide training that will produce accredited/certified fire investigators. The Laboratory will serve as a central repository of scientific information related to fire-scene investigation, analysis, and reconstruction research. Lab personnel will publish this research in scholarly, scientific, and investigative literature as well as through training and education programs.

Figure 4. Research is crucial to understanding the principles associated with fire ignition, growth, and spread. Click here to view enlarged image.

ATF is planning to offer research assistantships affiliated with universities, including the University of Maryland and Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where ATF personnel will direct graduate students for the benefit of the fire community, the students, and the universities. There are also plans to accommodate visiting or sabbatical scientists and professors while they assist the Laboratory personnel with mutually beneficial research as both expand their knowledge.

The Fire Research Laboratory will continue to work closely with the National Institute of Standards and Technology to support joint research projects and other initiatives designed to improve fire-scene investigation, reconstruction, and analysis. The Laboratory will be an active participant in the worldwide community of fire-research laboratories and will serve as an international model for training personnel, developing research and testing protocols, and fostering technical partnerships.

Fire Research Laboratory Vision Statement

A staff that is the foremost authority in the application of scientific and engineering principles to fire reconstruction, research, and testing in forensic fire science

A training and education center that provides a seamless bridge from theoretical fire research and testing knowledge to practical training and application for the benefit of the fire-investigation community

A facility that is the leading platform for conducting forensic fire investigation research and testing using the most technologically advanced scientific, environmentally sound, and safe practices

For additional information contact:
Richard E. Tontarski, Jr.
Chief, ATF Fire Research Laboratory
(301) 762-9800

or visit the website at: