Follow-Up Audit of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
Forensic Science Laboratories Workload Management

Audit Report 06-15
March 2006
Office of the Inspector General


The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ (ATF) was transferred to the U.S. Department of Justice (the Department) in January 2003 as a result of the Homeland Security Act. The Treasury Department’s Office of Inspector General (Treasury OIG) conducted an audit of the ATF’s forensic science laboratories and issued its report in 2001. The Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General (DOJ OIG) conducted a follow-up audit during 2005, which is the basis for this report, that assessed ATF forensic science laboratories workload management.

History and Mission

The ATF laboratory system traces its history from 1886, when Congress established a Revenue Laboratory as part of the Department of the Treasury (Treasury Department). This laboratory began examining alcoholic products in 1887. Over time, the laboratory’s responsibilities expanded to include the forensic analysis of firearms, explosives, fire accelerants, fire devices, and debris from explosives and fire scenes.

When the ATF was transferred to the Department of Justice in 2003, laboratory functions related to firearms, explosives, and arson also were transferred to the Department. Laboratory functions related to alcohol and tobacco, which are performed primarily for regulatory purposes, remained in the Treasury Department as the Scientific Services Division.3

The laboratories directly support the ATF’s mission of enforcing federal criminal laws relating to firearms, explosives, arson, alcohol, tobacco, and the regulatory functions associated with the firearms and explosives industries. Laboratory services are provided to the ATF’s 23 field divisions located throughout the United States.4 Each field division is charged with carrying out the ATF’s mission within its assigned jurisdiction. In FY 2005, the ATF laboratories performed over 2,600 forensic examinations on evidence from crimes involving arson, explosives, and firearms with a staff ceiling of 106 positions and a budget of approximately $16 million.

The Office of Laboratory Services

The Office of Laboratory Services is part of the ATF’s Office of Science and Technology. According to the ATF, the Office of Laboratory Services seeks to provide accurate and authoritative scientific information needed by the ATF in reducing violent crime and protecting the public. The goals of the Office of Laboratory Services are to:

  • develop and maintain scientific excellence and lead in setting national and international standards in the ATF’s areas of expertise by developing partnerships and employing new technology,

  • substantially advance and sustain the ATF’s strategic goals and programs, and

  • provide timely services in ways that can be sustained.

The Office of Laboratory Services consists of the Director’s Office, the Fire Research Laboratory, and three regional forensic science laboratories that are located near Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, and in Atlanta. The following chart depicts the Office of Laboratory Services organizational structure as of September 30, 2005.

Office of Laboratory Services – Organization Chart

Organization Chart. Click on image for a text only version.

 Source: Office of Laboratory Services, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

According to the ATF, the Director of Laboratory Services leads and oversees the laboratory system by performing strategic planning, obtaining resources, ensuring the quality of laboratory results, promoting research and staff development, and managing the forensic and fire research laboratories. The Director reports to the Assistant Director for Science and Technology, and administers an annual budget of approximately $16 million.

According to the ATF, a Quality Programs Office, which is part of the Director’s Office, helps the laboratories to: (1) meet national standards for quality, (2) maintain professional accreditation, (3) improve scientific and administrative standards, and (4) use computer systems. The office develops and updates protocols and procedures, performs annual internal reviews of each laboratory, conducts quality workshops, and administers annual proficiency tests to laboratory personnel.

National Laboratory Center

In June 2003, the ATF opened a $135 million National Laboratory Center in Ammendale, Maryland. This complex houses the Office of Laboratory Services Director’s Office, the new Fire Research Laboratory, the Washington laboratory, and the Treasury Department’s Scientific Services Division laboratory.

ATF National Laboratory Center
Ammendale, Maryland

photo of ATF National Laboratory Center
Source: Office of Laboratory Services, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

Fire Research Laboratory

According to the ATF, the Fire Research Laboratory was the first of its kind in the world and provides the capability to reconstruct fire scenes to determine how fires begin and spread. This laboratory provides the necessary facilities, equipment, and staff to work on important fire investigation issues such as fire scene reconstruction, flashover studies, validation of fire-pattern analysis indicators, the impact of accelerants on fire growth and spread, ignition studies, and electrical-fire cause analysis.5 According to ATF publications, until the development of the Fire Research Laboratory, there were no fire measurement facilities in the United States, or elsewhere, dedicated to the specific needs of the fire investigation community. The Fire Research Laboratory, however, did not exist at the time of the Treasury OIG audit and does not perform the type of routine forensic testing that was reviewed in the Treasury OIG audit; we did not evaluate it as part of the DOJ OIG audit.

Regional Forensic Science Laboratories

Staff at the regional forensic science laboratories support the ATF’s 23 field divisions by performing and reporting the results of forensic examinations, providing training to law enforcement officials, assisting at crime scenes, and testifying in court. Staff also enter electronic images of bullets and cartridge cases recovered from crime scenes and suspect weapons into the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN).6

The three forensic laboratories receive and return evidence submitted for examination and track the evidence while it is at the laboratory. The laboratories accept evidence for cases in which the ATF has an open investigation and under special arrangements with state and local authorities. For example, the ATF has an agreement with the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department to perform fire debris analysis. However, approximately 96 percent of the requests for examination included in the universe for this audit were submitted by ATF offices. Each ATF field division sends evidence to the laboratory that serves its area, as shown in the following map, with the exception of documents requiring analysis in the San Francisco region. These are sent to either the Washington or Atlanta laboratories, because the San Francisco laboratory is not staffed to perform this type of testing.7

Regional Forensic Science Laboratories’ Areas of Responsibility

Map of United States divided into 3 areas and highlighting Washington, Atlanta, and San Francisco.
Source: Office of Laboratory Services, Bureau
of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

The Atlanta and San Francisco laboratories are located in office buildings scheduled for facility upgrades. According to the Director of Laboratory Services, the renovation projects are scheduled for completion in FY 2007, and the approved upgrade projects will provide additional space and greater efficiency for each laboratory. A picture of a forensic examination room at the Washington laboratory follows.

Forensic Examination Room
Washington Laboratory

Photo of Forensic Examination Room Washington Laboratory
Source: Office of Laboratory Services, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives


The regional laboratories perform a variety of examinations using staff with expertise in diverse disciplines. Forensic chemists, firearm and toolmark examiners, fingerprint specialists, and document examiners (collectively referred to as examiners throughout this report) perform the following major types of examinations.

  • Arson Examinations – F ire debris collected at suspected arson crime scenes is examined to identify accelerants, incendiaries, and incendiary device components. Identification of an accelerant provides evidence that a crime of arson was committed.

  • Explosives Examinations – Evidence collected at explosive scenes is examined to identify explosives, blasting caps, fuses, timing mechanisms, energy sources, radio control components, igniters, containers, wires, tapes, and other component parts that may have been used to make an explosive device.

  • Firearm and Toolmark Examinations – Examiners perform comparisons of markings on bullets and cartridge casings, serial number restoration, weapon operability testing, bullet trajectory determinations, crime scene reconstruction of shooting incidents, and distance and shot pattern determinations. Toolmark examinations generally relate to explosives and arson crimes, and include the comparison of fractures and impressions caused by cutting, drilling, gripping, and prying tools.

  • Automated Ballistic Identification – Electronic images of markings on bullets and cartridge cases recovered from crime scenes and suspect weapons are entered into NIBIN for search and comparison against other bullets and cartridge cases.

  • Trace Evidence – Examiners perform microscopic, chemical, physical, and instrumental comparisons of a wide variety of physical evidence collected at crime scenes. Such materials include tape, wire, glass, metal, plastic, adhesive, hair, paint, fiber, and paper. These examinations are conducted to identify materials that can connect a suspect to a crime scene.

  • Questioned Document Examinations – Document examinations are performed to:

    • identify handwriting, hand-printing, mechanical impressions (such as typewriters), and counterfeit cigarette tax stamps;

    • detect altered and forged documents;

    • restore and decipher eradicated, obliterated, and charred documents; and

    • detect and decipher indented writings.8

  • Latent Print Examinations – Approximately 90 percent of evidence received in the forensic laboratory is examined for the presence of identifiable latent prints. In many instances, latent print analysis is requested in addition to other examinations. Evidence examined includes documents, component parts of explosives and incendiary devices, and firearms. Techniques used include dye staining, super glue fuming, laser, and traditional powder methods.

Examiners also testify as experts in court and provide training for Special Agents, inspectors, auditors, and other federal, state, and local law enforcement officials regarding the forensic analysis of evidence. In addition, examiners provide assistance at crime scenes, usually as part of one of the ATF’s four National Response Teams (NRT). These teams respond to major explosions and fire scenes nationally and internationally. An NRT consists of highly trained criminal investigators, forensic chemists, and explosive technology experts. The team responds to crime scenes within 24 hours, collects evidence, and performs preliminary forensic examinations on site.

Each regional laboratory has a mobile, rapid response laboratory. These rapid response laboratories operate in recreational-sized vehicles that are deployed to crime scenes requiring significant forensic services. The first mobile laboratory was acquired by the Washington laboratory in FY 2001 and has been deployed about two or three times per year.


From FYs 2003 through 2005, the three ATF forensic laboratories received requests for and performed nearly 10,000 examinations, which was between 2,500 and 4,000 per year. Evidence may be submitted for more than one type of examination, so the same evidence may be included two or more times in the number of examinations. For example, latent print examinations are generally requested in addition to other examinations performed and would be counted as a second or third examination.

The following table shows the number of examinations requested and completed for each of the forensic laboratories for the last three fiscal years.

Examinations Requested and Completed
FY 2003 through FY 2005
Laboratory FY 2003 FY 2004 FY 2005






























San Francisco




















 Source: Office of Laboratory Services, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

The preceding table shows instances in which more examinations were completed than were requested during this period. This was the case, for example, in all three laboratories for FY 2005, as is shown in the percentage columns. This occurs because the numbers of completed examinations also include examinations that were requested in a prior period.9 As a result, completed examinations can exceed the number requested in the same period. The preceding table also shows that the Washington laboratory generally performs more examinations than the other two forensic laboratories but it also employs more staff.

The following chart reflects the number of examinations performed by all three forensic laboratories by each major type of examination during the past three fiscal years.

Examinations Performed by Each Major Type of Examination
FY 2003 through FY 200510

FY 2003/FY 2004/FY 2005: Arson-286/291/291; Explosives-630/554/503; Firearms-831/632/462; Prints-1,524/1,387/1,169; Documents-238/148/69; Trace-123/146/180.
 Source: Office of Laboratory Services, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms
 and Explosives

According to ATF officials, the larger number of examinations performed during FY 2003 was attributable to the Washington, D.C., sniper case, which involved an unusually heavy workload in the disciplines of firearms and latent prints.11

Information System

The regional forensic science laboratories use the Forensic Automated Case and Exam Tracking System (FACETS) to track and manage the forensic evidence submitted by field offices. FACETS was developed by the Office of Laboratory Services and upgraded in 1999 by the ATF’s Information Services Division. FACETS provides basic database functions and operates on each laboratory’s local area network. The system is used to record the receipt, disposition, and tracking of forensic evidence submissions. Additionally, the system creates standardized reports and tracks which examiner is assigned to perform each examination. FACETS, however, does not provide comprehensive laboratory information management functions and data.

The ATF had planned to replace FACETS with a modern laboratory information management system for a long time, since at least 2001. When our audit began, the planned implementation date for the new system was July 2005. However, as of December 2005, the implementation schedule for the new system projected that implementation would not be complete until March 2006.

Laboratory Services Operating Plan

The Director of Laboratory Services publishes an Operating Plan each fiscal year that describes objectives, tasks, and performance measures for the Office of Laboratory Services to support the ATF’s strategic plan. The plan for FY 2005, which was issued October 15, 2004, included an objective to improve the timeliness of forensic services for the ATF’s major case types, which are firearms, explosives, and arson cases. The plan also established targets for the percentage of cases of each type to be completed within 30 days of receipt of the evidence in the laboratories.12 The target percentages are listed in the following table.

FY 2005 Operating Plan Targets
Type of Case Percentage of Cases
Targeted to be Completed
Within 30 Days







 Source: Laboratory Services Operating Plan, FY 2005

The Operating Plan includes supporting tasks to enable the Office of Laboratory Services to achieve these targets. These tasks include filling vacant or new positions, implementing a contract for fingerprint examinations to help reduce the backlog, and reducing the amount of time examiners spend conducting training that is not sponsored by the ATF’s Assistant Director for Training and Professional Development. Additionally, the Director of Laboratory Services planned to improve the evidence submission process by publishing a new ATF directive and evidence submission form.

Prior Audit

The Treasury OIG issued Audit Report OIG-01-068, CRIMINAL ENFORCEMENT: ATF Forensic Science Laboratories Need to Improve Workload Management, in April 2001. The audit identified weaknesses in the management and services provided by the laboratories. Specifically, the audit found that the laboratories: (1) did not always provide timely service, (2) needed to prioritize the workload, and (3) needed to ensure that all closed case files contained evidence control cards and that the number of hours laboratory employees spent analyzing evidence and preparing reports was recorded.13 The prior audit recommended that the ATF ensure that:

  1. The laboratories are adequately staffed with qualified personnel;

  2. Laboratory managers coordinate the amount of outside work, such as training, performed by laboratory personnel to limit the negative effect on the laboratory’s workload;

  3. The ATF develop a priority system for incoming evidence submissions to support its investigative priorities;

  4. Special Agents provide adequate justification for requests for expedited service and obtain proper supervisory signatures before submitting evidence transmittal forms to the laboratories; and

  5. Laboratory employees ensure that all closed case files contain evidence control cards and record the number of hours spent analyzing evidence and preparing reports.

In the response to the report’s findings and recommendations, ATF management substantially agreed with the Treasury OIG and cited specific actions it had taken or would take to address the issues raised. The actions included increasing the personnel ceiling for the Office of Laboratory Services, developing a new laboratory priority system, implementing a new information management system, and minimizing the amount of time laboratory personnel spent outside the laboratory performing other official duties.14 The Treasury OIG concluded that the proposed corrective actions addressed the intent of the recommendations. During our audit we determined the current status of each issue, which is discussed in the Findings and Recommendations section of this report.

  1. However, during fiscal year (FY) 2005, the ATF laboratories in the Department of Justice began analyzing tobacco products related to criminal cases.

  2. Most evidence analyzed by the ATF forensic laboratories is submitted by ATF Special Agents. The laboratories only accept evidence from state or local authorities if special arrangements have been made with the ATF.

  3. Flashover is a dramatic event in a room fire that rapidly leads to the involvement of all combustibles within the room.

  4. Through the NIBIN program, the ATF deploys Integrated Ballistics Identification System ( IBIS) equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies for use in imaging and comparing crime firearm evidence. See Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, Audit Report Number 05-30, The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ National Integrated Ballistics Information Network Program, June 2005.

  5. Laboratory officials told the DOJ OIG that they discontinued their efforts to replace the single vacated document analyst position within the San Francisco laboratory in 2000, because the volume of work no longer justified a position. Western regional field offices were instructed to forward all document analysis requests to either the Washington or Atlanta laboratories.

  6. An indented writing consists of indented marks on a sheet of paper or other material created from a document that was written above it.

  7. See the Backlog of Examination Requests section of this report for a discussion of the backlog.

  8. This chart excludes data on comparative examinations, which the ATF’s Office of Laboratory Services discontinued tracking in FY 2005. Therefore, the total number of examinations for FYs 2003 and 2004 do not equal the total numbers listed in the previous table.

  9. John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were convicted for the sniper attacks that killed 10 people and wounded 3 others in the Washington, D.C., area during October 2002. ATF officials advised us that the Washington laboratory received and test-fired over 100 firearms during the first 2 weeks of the sniper case, compared to an average of about 28 firearms examinations performed per month during FY 2004.

  10. The 30-day standard is discussed in detail in the Timeliness of Completed Examinations section of this report.

  11. The Treasury OIG report phrased the third item as “laboratories need to ensure case file management controls are followed,” but the finding addressed only the two specific issues about recording hours and evidence control cards listed above.

  12. Additional information on the ATF’s response to the findings and recommendations is provided in Appendix II.

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