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WASHINGTON -- A new high-tech weapon in the fight against arson will be available before the end of next year.

The new weapon is an interactive CD-ROM training program that will allow investigators to learn by "walking through" a burned-out house and -- thanks to virtual reality technology -- examine clues as if they were actually in the house.

The CD-ROM program will have three main components, said Pat Corbitt, principal of Corbitt Design in Old Bridge, N.J., and architect of the program, being produced with Stonehouse Media Inc. of Princeton, N.J. Those components are:

*The scenario. The program's scenario basically involves a fire that occurs at an elderly couple's house.

Investigators use the interactive technology to search for clues within the virtual scenario, examine evidence in the home and question witnesses.

Investigators using the program can select objects within the house -- such as an electrical junction box -- and rotate them 360 degrees, allowing them to examine them from all angles. A menu at the bottom of the screen gives investigators options on how to proceed, such as sending the object to a laboratory for tests or calling their superiors.

*The tutorial. This second component of the program provides a detailed description of how to carry out a systemic and scientific method of investigating any fire scene.

The scenario portion of the program actually provides a context in which users can apply the tutorial information.

*The reference piece.

The final feature of the CD-ROM program is a file drawer-like graphic that users can click on to access additional reference material on specific investigative matters.

Although the CD-ROM won't be available to fire investigators until November 1998 at the earliest, its potential was on display at the U.S. Capitol last week as representatives of Princeton, N.J.-based American Reinsurance Co. and three other entities signed a memorandum of agreement committing themselves to the project. Two federal agencies -- the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the U.S. Fire Administration -- and the National Fire Protection Assn. also are signatories to the agreement.

The CD-ROMs will be distributed free by each signatory. American Re will be responsible for distributing them to the insurance industry, which could include risk managers and corporate loss control officials, said Joseph Toscano, assistant vp and fire investigations specialist for the Princeton, N.J.-based reinsurer, which is part of Munich Reinsurance Group.

In addition to distributing the CD-ROMs, American Re is providing technical assistance to the project. Funding for the program is coming from a $750,000 grant from the ATF.

Mr. Toscano said arson causes about $2 billion in property damage annually, but he and other speakers pointed out that the actual cost of arson, when including such matters as cost of investigation and business interruption, is probably several times that figure.

According to Raymond Kelly, the U.S. Treasury Department's undersecretary for enforcement, the purpose of the new program is simple: to increase the number of arrests and convictions for arson.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said only about 2% of arson fires result in convictions. The new interactive technology will provide investigators more information and training, thereby increasing the chances of identifying the cause of suspicious fires earlier with more certainty and therefore increasing the chance of arrests and convictions.

Rep. Hoyer noted that the effort stemmed in part from the work of the National Church Arson Task Force, an interagency body formed last year in response to a series of suspicious church fires across the country (BI, Aug. 19, 1996).

Several speakers emphasized that by bolstering investigators' knowledge, the new technology will bolster their testimony in court as well, thus making convictions more likely. Mr. Magaw said the CD-ROM will be constantly upgraded to reflect improvements in arson investigative techniques.

The interactive technology effort builds upon a project undertaken by American Re about two years ago. That earlier project, "Motive, Means and Opportunity: A Comprehensive Guide to Arson Investigation," includes a video of a dramatized arson investigation, a 240-page guide on arson investigative techniques and a pocket checklist for investigators.