Goodlatte seeks to keep ATF canine facility local

A pair of Labrador Retrievers from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives National Canine Division and its training facility in Front Royal sit inside the board room at the Government Center in Front Royal on Monday morning prior to the congressional hearing on moving the ATF facility to Alabama. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – The fate of a federal training center in Warren County for bomb detection canines remains uncertain, but at least two members of Congress want it to stay in Virginia.

Residents, local business representatives and elected leaders attended a field hearing held Monday by U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, about the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives National Canine Division and its training facility on Cavalry Road. Specifically, Goodlatte, R-Roanoke, held the hearing in response to a recent push to move the training facility to the ATF National Center for Explosives Training and Research at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-McLean, who represents the adjacent 10th House District, joined Goodlatte in asking questions of ATF Deputy Director Thomas Brandon.

The ATF started training canines to serve federal, state and local law enforcement and fire agencies in 1995. The facility shares a 250-acre site with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“We frequently make reference to the environment here as pristine and undoubtedly it’s a beautiful location,” Brandon testified. “But it is also no coincidence that our facility’s located in such a clean place. This is because, in order to imprint our dogs to detect minute amounts of ignitable liquids and explosives materials, it is necessary to train dogs in an environment that is entirely free of accelerant, explosive residue.

“From start to finish, the trainers, handlers and staff are meticulous in the handling of these materials in order to maintain full control of the imprinting process,” Brandon went on to say. “ATF forensic chemists and canine experts employ a strict regimen to ensure canines are trained to detect target odor only and not secondary scents in the soil or otherwise.”

U.S. Reps. Barbara Comstock, R-McLean, left, and Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke, question Thomas E. Brandon, deputy director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, during a congressional hearing in Front Royal Monday. Rich Cooley/Daily

Contamination affects the training, confidence and reliability of the canine, Brandon noted. Trace contaminants can prove problematic during training and render a canine unable to detect the target odor in another environment, he said.

The relocation proposal originated in the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee whose chairman, Sen. Richard Shelby, a former Democrat turned Republican, represents Alabama. A report commissioned by the committee states that moving the division would cost an estimated $40 million and, moreover, the detonation of explosives and other activities on the site contaminates the area for canine training.

“I cannot overemphasize how important it is to prevent cross-contamination when imprinting and training our canines,” Brandon said.

The ATF has trained approximately 1,200 canines at the Front Royal facility for 102 law enforcement agencies in the United States and for 22 international partners, according to Brandon. Dogs trained at the Front Royal facility recently aided law enforcement agencies investigating several bomb explosions in Austin, Texas. Explosion sites often contain a mix of potentially critical evidence and blast debris, Brandon explained.

“To a human eye it all appears the same but not to an ATF canine,” Brandon said.

Thomas Brandon, left, ATF deputy director, stands beside U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke, as the pair watch a dog training session inside the ATF facility in Front Royal on Monday. Rich Cooley/Daily

ATF canines deployed to Austin rapidly detected the difference between the two types of debris, allowing forensic laboratory examiners to focus on critical pieces of evidence and not waste time on extraneous material, Brandon said. ATF Special Agent Randall Dawkins from Dallas attended the hearing with Abel, a 6-year-old canine trained at the Front Royal facility that aided in the investigation of the Austin bombings.

Former U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Vienna, helped secure the funds in the 1990s for the ATF to build its 21,000-square-foot training facility in Warren County, Brandon noted. Wolf secured funds around 2000 so the facility could add a kennel for up to 100 canines.

Goodlatte asked Brandon to idenitfy the benefits of operating the center in Front Royal. Brandon cited its proximity to the Washington, D.C. area and Dulles International Airport and a “synergy” that exists between the center and various law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the district. Brandon also mentioned as a benefit the goodwill shown by the residents of Warren County and Front Royal as well as about 120 businesses cultivated over 25 years.

Goodlatte noted that the ATF division would need to restart such relationships if it relocated. Brandon concurred. The division also benefits through its co-location with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Brandon noted.

Comstock worked for Wolf when his district included the Front Royal area. The push to move the canine training center reminded her of an effort by the late U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, to relocate the CIA to his home state. Comstock recalled working with Wolf to successfully keep the CIA in Virginia.

ATF Deputy Director Thomas E. Brandon answers questions during a congressional hearing Monday. Rich Cooley/Daily

“(There are) a lot of similarities here where there have been a lot of investments made here, very important relationships and expertise that you have here and … support of the community, and it really is sort of ‘if it ain’t broke why would we be trying to fix it,” Comstock said. “This has really been working well.”


Jeffrey Craven, a K9 handler with the Pima County Sheriff's Office in Arizona, puts his Labrador Retriever Zito through a training exercise at the ATF facility in Front Royal on Monday. Rich Cooley/Daily