EU Arson Investigators Get Help From National Center for Forensic Science

EU Arson Investigators Get Help From National Center for Forensic Science

The University of Central Florida is home to one of the best resources for arson investigators in the nation, and starting next year the university will also be a resource for European investigators.

UCF’s National Center for Forensic Science houses the Ignitable Liquids Reference Collection and the Substrate Database. The collection is a compilation of chemical recipes of more than 600 liquids known to be used to set fires in the United States. The Substrate Database complements the collection with information on the chemical compositions released by household furnishings and building materials during a fire.

“We analyze sample liquids like gasoline and furnishings such as carpets for their chemical composition, and then enter the information into our databases “said Mary Williams, coordinator of research programs and services at the center.

When investigators are trying to determine what caused a fire, they usually start with the debris, said Williams, who holds a master’s degree in forensic science. The database may help them account for the chemicals they find at the scene as a potential fire starter or simply the chemical breakdown of products from household furnishings, which have nothing to do with the origin of the fire. Identifying the starter liquid can potentially help investigators track down who purchased the ignitable liquid and perhaps whether an individual fire is an isolated incident or part of a pattern.

Now the center is working with more than 21 countries in the European Union to create an international database of ignitable liquids. The center will house the international database and assist its European colleagues in managing the information. Some of the countries involved are the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the Netherlands.

Jeanet Hendrikse, a forensic expert at the Netherlands Forensic Institute has been working closely with Williams to pull the project together in a way that meets all their needs.

The international database will contain data from forensic scientists in Europe and eventually from contributing nations around the world.

Data in the domestic database was all generated at the UCF center from samples submitted by agencies throughout the United States, but due to the hazardous nature of the materials they cannot easily be shipped internationally. To overcome the shipping difficulty, each European laboratory will analyze samples and contribute the results directly to the international database. Because there is no uniformity in the analysis methods, the results can be different, although not radically different, Williams said.  So the database will include each country’s data and notes about how the samples were prepared and analyzed.

“The Fire & Explosions Investigation working group within the European Network of Forensic Science Institutes has tried to realize a European database of ignitable liquid products without success due to lack of funding and lack of agreement on the design of the database,” Hendrikse said. “The offer from NCFS-UCF, to cooperate and create a global database was therefore accepted with open hands. The creation of a global database of ignitable liquids and substrates is considered to be a unique opportunity that will be beneficial to the fire-debris community worldwide.”

In addition to arson, some ignitable liquids are used in homemade explosives employed by terrorists. Both databases may help law enforcement investigators from all countries when they have to track down terrorists who use homemade explosives in attacks.  The databases likely cannot compile all possible ignitable liquids, but they can narrow the list for investigators.

“It will provide insight in the available products in other nations, which is extremely important to fire-debris experts, as ignitable liquid products nowadays easily can cross borders,” Hendrikse said. “In addition, it creates the opportunity to share knowledge.”

Williams, who began her career as an accountant and went back to school to get bachelor’s and master’s degrees in science so she could focus on forensic science, is thrilled to see UCF’s original database inspire others. She said she became interested in forensic science as a way to help families facing tragedies.

“It’s very exciting to be part of this effort on such a global scale,” Williams said. “I’m happy to see that we’ll be helping a whole other group of investigators bring closure to families.”

UCF’s domestic database began 14 years ago with a grant from the National Institute of Justice. The Technical and Scientific Working Group for Fire and Explosions Ignitable Liquids Database Committee (ILDC) helped launch the site and continues to work with the center at UCF to maintain and expand the database.