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ATF organizes event to educate high-school students

Forensics, engineering students learn about fire investigations

Members from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives’ Investigative Unit hold outdoor demonstrations on March 31 for forensics students at Cherry Hill East. (EMILY LIU/The Sun)

In a first, representatives of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) held a two-day presentation for engineering and forensics students at Cherry Hill East High School last month. 

Jesse Lampf, a certified fire investigator and senior special agent with the ATF who helped  organize the event, said the March presentation was the first time the bureau partnered with a high school to give demonstrations. In addition to having daughters who attend the school, Lampf also cited East’s engineering and forensics classes as reasons it hosted the presentation.

Both days included five rotating stations where students learned from professionals how engineering and forensics are used in fire investigations. The second day featured an additional presentation from fire engineers, a behavioral analyst and fire investigators.

Although arson and fire investigations are not covered in the East curriculum, students were able to see how other topics like crime scene analysis and the investigative process are used in daily operations. 

Lampf explained that the bureau’s work involves determining where the origin of a fire is as well as its cause.  If the fire is purposely set, investigators attempt to identify the suspects and collect evidence for potential prosecution.

“ … On every scene that we go to determine origin and cause, we use the scientific method,” Lampf explained. “We have to come up with a series of hypotheses: how the fire could have been initiated, what the competent ignition source is, what that first fuel is and how those two things came together. We have to go through that process for each and every hypothesis.

“If it comes down to two hypotheses and they cannot conclusively rule out one or the other, it will be listed as undetermined,” he added.

Other presenters included ATF Fire Research Engineer John Butta and Electrical Engineer Mike Abraham, who explained how they recreate scenes in a research lab to determine a fire’s cause, and Special Agent and Behavior Analyst Melissa Merola, who shared how she acts as a resource for investigators. Her role is to help advance an investigation by looking at it through a behavioral lens using her knowledge of victimology and offender behavior. 

The presentations also included a fire demonstration with Butta, a presentation of the National Response Team’s truck and their responsibilities by Lampf, and how K-9s are trained to identify up to 27 ignitable liquids by the New Jersey Fire Marshal’s Office.

“Seeing every single thing be applied in a real-world study and seeing the different professions that could come out of the class we were taking was a really cool experience,” said Max Gaffin, a senior taking forensics. 

To learn more about the ATF, visit https://www.atf.gov/

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