A highly trained team of federal investigators created to assist in complicated arson and explosives cases has been used in recent years in only about 10 percent of the high-priority cases it was designed to investigate, the Justice Department said.
In a report issued Tuesday by the department's Office of the Inspector General, investigators said that from fiscal year 2007 through 2009, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) National Response Team (NRT) was used in just 63 of 631 "Priority 1" cases.
Those cases involve fires or explosions at commercial or industrial property with estimated damage of $1 million or more or at least one death or more than 10 injuries. A team responding to such a case normally is made up of about 15 agents who arrive at the scene within 24 hours and stay between three and seven days collecting and analyzing evidence.
"Twelve of the 25 field divisions with Priority 1 cases either did not use the NRT or only used the NRT once during our review period," the report said, adding that ATF "is not ensuring the NRT is being used to its full potential."
The report said officials cited various reasons for the inconsistent use of the team, from increased resources in many jurisdictions to the existence of teams with similar functions in some ATF field offices to a concern among some administrators that requesting NRT assistance will make their field office look incapable of conducting large investigations.
ATF Deputy Director Kenneth Melson, the acting head of the agency, said in a response to the report that all arson and explosives cases are evaluated for NRT potential.
"Regardless of the delineated criteria for a response, when local [including ATF] resources are sufficient, the investigation is handled at that level," he said. "ATF believes that this ensures that resources for NRT operations are used in the most productive and efficient manner possible."
The report said the team earned high praise for its effectiveness when it was deployed, but that in some cases rural and local agencies were relatively unaware of the team and its capabilities.
The report also said that between 1997 and 2004, ATF spent nearly $7 million to purchase 40 NRT response vehicles that contain specialized investigative equipment.
An analysis of usage logs for 13 of the vehicles revealed that 51 percent of the vehicles' use was for community events, such as state fairs and parades. Only 9 percent came from activation as part of an NRT investigation, with the rest of the use coming for such purposes as non-NRT probes and training.
Investigators said that between 2005 and 2006 ATF also purchased eight trailers with equipment for mitigating hazardous materials incidents at a cost of $515,000 per trailer. However, in the period the IG studied only three NRT responses involved hazardous materials, and NRT members told investigators that the trailers were "rarely used."
"They stated that at least three of the eight hazmat trailers had not been used since their purchase," the report said.
The inspector general's 10 recommendations included calls for management to increase oversight of the team and its equipment, to better evaluate its performance and to enhance outreach efforts.
Mr. Melson said in his response that the agency is realigning its arson and explosives functions and consolidating programs in a manner that "will greatly improve oversight and administration of the NRT Program."
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