ROD AMMON: And welcome to this podcast for April of 2014 for the International Association of Arson Investigators and CFITrainer.Net®. I’m Rod Ammon. Today, we’re going to do two things on the podcast; we’re going to start out by talking to Don Robinson. He’s with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; he’s a Special Agent in Charge currently stationed at the National Center for Explosives Training and Research. It’s located at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. After that, I’ll give you some updates on the training activities of the International Association of Arson Investigators. So, we’re here today with Don Robinson; he’s the Special Agent in Charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, their national center for explosives training and research, which is in Huntsville, Alabama. Don, thanks for being with us.
DON ROBINSON: Sure Rod, my pleasure.
ROD AMMON: We’re very grateful. I think there are a lot of questions out there about how can I use the ATF, what’s the background of ATF in fire investigation? Could you talk a little bit about that?
DON ROBINSON: We go back as far as the Gun Control Act being passed back in 1968, and part of that legislation included destructive devices which include incendiary devices; Molotov cocktails and other kinds of things that were used. So, there are federal statues going back to that we enforce, actually even before ATF became ATF in the late ‘60s, and then after ’68 you saw the Organized Crime Control Act, which is probably better known as the Explosives Control Act in 1970 come out. And ATF used an interpretation of one of the statutes in that act to include incendiary devices again in kind of a landmark case in ATF at least, in the early ‘70s with an arson case that resulted in a number of deaths down south and actually used those statutes and it was the first support by the courts of us using that interpretation, and that’s really opened the door to us to enforcing the federal statutes, arson as well as explosives. You saw in the mid-to-late ‘70s that arson task force concept was established in ATF. The first task force was in Philly and that carried out to the US Attorney’s Office through the 23 strike force cities across the country by later that year.
ATF established the national response team concept in about 1978, had our first NRT callout in ’79 and really bringing that team concept, a bunch of arson and explosive specialists along with chemists and other support folks establishing these teams. We started out with two teams on either sides of the country and now we have a full complement of national response teams, three regional teams, but folks across the country and can respond to any scene - large fire and arson or explosive scene, working with state and local partners and kind of bringing that team concept to that. You know, we saw the Anti-Arson Act passed in ’82, Church Arson Prevention Act in ’96. So the federal statutes continued to develop and we enforced those, we have some outstanding forensic auditors across the country now that support those complex investigations of fire and arson cases, and even when we transferred over to The Department of Justice from Treasury, after the Homeland Security Act of 2002, we saw the passage of the Safe Explosives Act, which, again, with the nexus between incendiary and explosive devices and a lot of additional controls on explosives. So, we’ve been involved with it for quite a while and I’m very happy to be in the position I am here.
ROD AMMON: So you corrected me with something, and while that’s happened quite a few times over the decade, a lot of people say ATF, now it’s Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. You want to talk briefly about that?
DON ROBINSON: Sure. With passage of the Homeland Security Act in 2002 you saw a lot of agencies move around and we went from The Department of Treasury to The Department of Justice, so we’re in Justice with FBI, the Marshals and DEA, but along with that, Congress just recognized what we were already doing and make sure that that was brought over with us to DOJ, but our work enforcing explosives statutes and on the regulatory side, the regulation of the explosives industry. But explosives is long in our history and I think they just wanted to recognize that, we kind of joke around it’s the silent E, they left it as ATF for branding and other purposes, but yeah, it is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
ROD AMMON: All right, that helps, thanks. When I look at my history working with you and the folks at the ATF it starts sort of at the end of when you talked about the Church Arson Prevention Act in 1996, or I guess the beginning of that act, we worked on a project call interFIRE.
DON ROBINSON: That’s right.
ROD AMMON: And that history sort of made a tie-in for me because I was working with other folks as time moved on in local and state training, the International Association of Arson Investigators and some other folks that were actually in the private sector, American Reinsurance and different people were reaching out to local and state folks to increase or improve the fire and investigator training. Can you talk a little bit about how ATF is working to serve investigators?
DON ROBINSON: ATF, we value our partnerships and role in that fire investigation community. We are now, with an internal reorganization, been able to bring our fire and arson programs together again with the explosives here under one roof at... So all the programs are working together, the program managers, division chiefs and we’ve been able to breathe some additional life into some of the programs that we’ve been known for in the past. As I’m talking with you, we’ve got a advanced arson investigation course for our own agents going on downstairs and then we recently did an arson for prosecutors course that for budget and other reasons we hadn’t been able to do, but we’re breathing life back into that program.
Back in the summer, I made a trip out to Maryland and met with the Executive Director and the Board there for IAAI; actually next week I’m heading out to the IAAI international conference to participate in the opening ceremonies there. We’ve got a lot of people that are involved in making presentations and instructors in that conference next week. So we’ve got responsibility for investigation and supporting our local partners. Just wrapped up a national response team to Des Moines, Iowa for a large fire at a historic building in downtown Des Moines and it’s nice to hear how well the folks are working together at the scene. We take that team concept very seriously and we train all of our folks in it and it’s the work we love.
ROD AMMON: It’s nice to hear. Sometimes you know, you hear people talk about oh, the Feds or you see in television the Feds came in and they took over, and what I hear about you guys is that when you get called in, it seems like there’s a good relationship as you were just alluding to out there in the field. What is it that somebody who’s a fire investigator can do to reach out to get help from the ATF?
DON ROBINSON: Yeah, they can start right off contacting their local field office, determining if they have a fire investigator or a CFI, a Certified Fire Investigator, in that group or nearby, many of our groups are what we call general groups. So, usually if it’s outside of a large city they’ve got folks there that have responsibility for all three things, firearms enforcement, explosives and fire and arson. So they can make contact there, they can also contact us here at the... because we can hook them up with some resources out in the field. So, that local contact at the field office is the first step.
ROD AMMON: You know, one of the things I’ve heard in the past is hey, don’t exchange your business cards the first time at the scene. What is that somebody who’s a fire investigator can do to initially develop a relationship with the ATF office?
DON ROBINSON: I would encourage them to introduce themselves at either chapter meetings, get in touch with the local field division office and just kind of introduce themselves. We’ve got a lot of folks out there doing some good work, even outside the CFIs, we have fantastic investigators that specialize and like to work the arson investigations, and they don’t make the origin of cause call, but they specialize in the investigation, and we depend on relationships with our state and local partners. There’s many times it’s a single agent working with his fellow law enforcement and fire investigative personnel and we depend on the team concept, not just on the NRTs but working any case.
ROD AMMON: So I need some help technology, and I had put a bug in your ear about this a little bit, but I was wondering what - what’s going on with technology today? What kind of things can the ATF do to support me with tech?
DON ROBINSON: Our fire research laboratory in Ammendale, Maryland, it’s connected to our national laboratory there, that place is a wealth of support of the local fire investigator. In that complex we have the ability to recreate a scene, to build I know at least a two-story townhouse under a hood in this facility, recreate the scenario from a fire investigation, and we can use that to prove or disprove a witness statement or a defendant’s statement. That thing is there for - not just for ATF investigations but for the state and local investigators to take advantage of also. We have a wealth of fire engineers, electrical engineers that are assigned to the fire research laboratories, CFIs assigned there, our field personnel; work with them all the time, they do training at the fire research lab and that’s a heck of a gem that we have there in Maryland. That’ll support any case in any jurisdiction.
There we’ve got some great case presentation software that we use to document the scenes and pull those things together. We’ve always, in this team concept thing with the NRT, anybody that’s worked with the NRT knows when we leave the scene there’s a copy of everything left with the local and the investigators as well as the ATF agent that requested the team. That, in combination with some real upgrades to our forensic mapping that we do of scenes, and the way that is able to be presented later in court is pretty cool stuff for a jury to see. Now, those are just a couple examples, but man I would really - that fire research lab is something that can support any job out there and it’s a heck of a tool.
ROD AMMON: You know, it’s great the things that you’re doing on a federal level because I can tell when I talk to folks on the local and state, they’re dealing with budget issues or not enough manpower and a fire investigation is, as you well know, can be an awfully dirty, digging kind of experience and knowing there’s somebody out there you can call is probably real welcome.
DON ROBINSON: Sure.
ROD AMMON: And thanks again Don.
DON ROBINSON: Thanks a lot Rod, appreciate it. Thanks for the call.
ROD AMMON: We’re very grateful for the help form the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and for Don taking the time to talk to us about the ATF and what they’re doing. The IAAI has a lot of other things going on, the International Training Conference is coming up this week in Las Vegas. There’s more information about the conference at firearson.com. But topline on that is that there’s 120 hours of in-person training and there’s expertise from around the world. There is a keynote presentation about the Station Nightclub fire with John Barylick; he’ll be talking about lessons learned, legal battles and victim’s rights. Another training update, there’s a class on digital forensics in arson investigation coming up at the IAAI’s headquarters in Bowie, Maryland. Again, for more information on that go to www.firearson.com. For the International Association of Arson Investigators and CFITrainer.Net®, I’m Rod Ammon. Be well.