- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 23, 2004

David Sheppard plays with fire.He torches cars, furniture, buildings and just about anything else combustible. And sometimes he suits up in head-to-toe fire gear and douses the flames.

“Can you think of a better job?” asks Mr. Sheppard, a senior fire research engineer at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The 40-year-old New England native works at ATF’s Fire Research Laboratory in Beltsville, part of a 176,000-square-foot facility that includes a forensic science, and alcohol and tobacco labs.

The fire lab reconstructs fire scenes to determine how fires begin and spread, and it catalogs the way particular objects burn. The lab facilities are big enough so that engineers can reconstruct a small office building — indoors — and then watch it go up in smoke.

“We can build a three-story house under here, bring in train cars, buses. Anything that will fit through the door,” said Mr. Sheppard.

The research is used in criminal investigations, to train fire scene investigators and to develop scientifically sound methods for law enforcement.

Mr. Sheppard and his colleagues want to determine how a fire started and who might have set it. If it was arson, the researchers want to help state or local prosecutors convict the arsonist.

“We want to give investigators a leg up and try to give them an advantage. First, did a crime occur, and then try to figure out who did it,” he said.

There were 45,000 arsons in 2001, the most recent figures available, according to the National Fire Prevention Association. More extensive data from 1999 indicate that intentionally set fires caused 622 deaths and $2.7 billion in property damage.

Mr. Sheppard graduated into the field from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, one of two U.S. schools that teach fire protection engineering, and earned a doctoral degree from Northwestern University with a dissertation on the spray characteristics of fire sprinklers.

Originally Mr. Sheppard wanted to be an aerospace engineer, but the field did not look promising in the early 1990s, when he was graduating and many defense firms were laying off workers.

But fire is easily as enchanting as flight.

“I’ve seen thousands and thousands of fires. A lot of times we can figure out what happened. A lot of times we’re still surprised. That’s the reason this job is so fascinating — there’s lots of gaps and holes in our knowledge that we can fill in,” he said.

Mr. Sheppard teaches fire-investigation classes and is currently involved in 12 arson investigations. The cases take years to complete, and until they have worked through the courts, he can’t talk about them.

“When I’ve been here for 10 years, I’ll have completed investigations,” he said. Right now, Mr. Sheppard has 3½ years with ATF, too little to see a case through court.

Mr. Sheppard also sets things on fire for research. The lab is creating a public database that will tell investigators how things burn — for example how much carbon dioxide is in the smoke, how hot the flames are, how fast an object burns.

The information indicates whether something burns hot enough to set other nearby materials on fire, and if it spews enough caustic smoke to kill a person.

Last week, he walked up to an orange-brown sofa, stuffed parts of The Washington Post in and around its three cushions and then touched a lighter to the paper.

In less than three minutes, flames spread from one corner of the couch and began spitting out the back of the living room fixture. Soon it was shooting out 10-foot flames and radiating intense heat.

Smoke billowed up into a hood, called a calorimiter, that measures volume and composition of the smoke. The system also scrubs the smoke so that the facility has no toxic emissions.

After about four minutes, Mr. Sheppard signals for colleagues — outfitted with fire suits, air tanks and masks — to put out the fire. They spray it down with water and reveal a wood and wire skeleton.

“If that was in your house, the smoke detector would go off after about a minute and by the time they put out the fire, people would be dead,” Mr. Sheppard said.

“The lesson is, when the smoke detector goes off, get out quick,” he adds.

The lesson goes home with Mr. Sheppard, who lives in Maryland with a wife and three children.

“There are no candles in my house. Nobody smokes. We’re very careful. We practice crawling down the stairs and going outside when the smoke detector goes off,” he said.

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