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Fighting fire with software

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms joins the high-tech age with plans to produce a virtual reality CD-ROM to train arson investigators.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) announced it will produce a virtual reality CD-ROM to train arson investigators.

Hoping to increase the conviction rate for arson, ATF will use the new interactive training tool, which simulates arson damage, to sharpen the observation skills of fire investigators.

Traveling through the charred remains of a house, down hallways, and through rooms; picking up pieces of evidence and clues; and even interviewing witnesses, fire investigators will build a virtual case file that will ultimately be evaluated by the program's virtual prosecutor.

The agreement to develop the new software (a partnership between the ATF, American Re-Insurance Company, the U.S. Fire Administration, and the National Fire Protection Association) has drawn the University of Maryland and the National Institute of Standards of Technology, as well as private software companies, into the project, which has been ongoing for the past 14 months.

Only 2 percent of confirmed arson cases result in convictions, according to John Magaw, director of ATF. The new CD-ROM "will ensure that investigators who do not have the resources to attend specialized training--or do not frequently have hands-on experience--can still keep pace with the latest investigative techniques," he said.

The CD-ROM is scheduled to be released in November 1998.