Deliberately set fires or those suspected of having been set killed 715 people and caused approximately $1.4 billion in property damage during 1990. These fires represented 15.5 percent of structure fires occurring in that year. Vehicle fires of incendiary origin alone (up almost 11 percent from 1989) caused S167 million in property damage, a 20.9 percent jump from 1989.1 In addition, expert fire investigators estimate that as many as 50 percent of the fires declared to be of “undetermined origin” actually may be incendiary and that the indirect losses attributable to arson may be as high as S15 billion annually.

These statistics confirm that the United States for at least a decade has been experiencing one of the worst arson epidemics in the industrialized world. In the so-called “war on arson,” declared in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the arsonist clearly is winning. The recent downturn in the economy is forcing many state and local governments to cut their budgets drastically to offset enormous deficits. These cuts will include fire service and law enforcement agencies. Unfortunately, reducing already minimal levels of staffing and investigative resources is likely to increase the incidence of arson.

Consequently, very few agencies have maintained the strong commitment they once had to controlling and preventing arson. In addition, the federal government’s leadership role in arson prevention and control, specifically in the awarding of grants, has drastically decreased since the late 1970s and early 1980s. Many jurisdictions that relied on this support now cannot afford to develop and sustain effective programs. Despite all this, however, fire departments—regardless of size or budget—can initiate or maintain efforts to combat arson.

Arson is a crime that impacts society in many ways. Although the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program classifies it as a property crime, arson is also a crime against people. Most fire service and law enforcement agencies traditionally have been reactive in their approach to addressing the arson problem. A fire occurs: The fire department responds; an investigator is summoned; a cause and origin determination is made; and, if the fire is incendiary, a follow-up investigation is conducted to identify, apprehend, and prosecute the perpetrator(s).

Thousands of fire departments across the country respond to arson incidents in this way every day. But, this approach is drastically wrong. These fires should have been prevented in the first place. Proactive—-not reactive—strategies are needed. The fundamental flaw with reactive arson prevention and control strategies is that the crime precedes intervention efforts. This reactive approach gives the arsonist the opportunity to succeed with little chance of being apprehended. We must reverse this trend.

Realistically, no one strategy or organization will eliminate our nation’s arson problem. It will take a combined, coordinated, and cooperative effort by all the public and private-sector organizations involved in preventing and controlling arson.

Several proactive initiatives, however, have effectively reduced the incidence of arson in many U.S. communities.

Aware of the shortcomings of the traditional arson-control approach that focuses primarily on apprehending the arsonist(s), many jurisdictions have developed programs specifically tailored to their local arson problems. These programs, however, can be adapted for municipalities of all sizes and financial constraints. Several arson-control/prevention programs are discussed below.


Operation Red Cap was launched by the City of New York (NY) Fire Department to stem the serious arson problems the city faced during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The program was aimed at reducing the incidence of arson in selected high-crime and high-fire areas. Its primary components were community education, highly visible law enforcement, and improved on-scene and follow-up fire investigations. Under the program, fire marshals responded in two-man teams to all fire incidents in their respective areas to determine origin and cause; the marshals were available 24 hours a day. Wearing bright red baseball caps and driving patrol cars marked with the fire department logo, the fire marshals were highly visible. Their physical presence deterred individuals who might have been inclined to set fires or pull false alarms. The marshals worked out of trailers strategically located in selected neighborhoods throughout the city so that they were easily accessible to community residents. The trailers contained support equipment for examining fire scenes, collecting evidence, conducting surveillances, writing reports, and processing suspects.

To ensure a quick response to fire incidents, communications were monitored from the trailers and Red Cap fire marshals were dispatched by radio. This meant that marshals often arrived on the scene at the same time as or before responding fire companies, which is unlikely in the case of “after-the-fact” fire investigations in which the officer in charge requests a fire investigator to respond if there is a question about the fire’s origin and cause. In these instances, the arrival of fire investigators can be delayed an hour or longer. Fire investigators’ early arrival on scene offered tremendous investigatory advantages including the following:

  • The investigator could observe the fire while it was still in progress— providing valuable clues for determining the fire’s origin and cause.
  • Firefighters were available to assist in obtaining and recording important information pertaining to the circumstances surrounding the fire.
  • Investigators had the opportunity to supervise salvage and overhaul operations, minimizing the potential for destroying any remaining evidence.
  • The investigator could identify and interview key witnesses at the fire scene while the information was fresh in their minds.
  • Chances of apprehending an arsonist who remained at the scene improved.

In addition, a fire marshal’s visibility stimulated more effective communication with the community and helped the fire department to gain citizens’ confidence, cooperation, and understanding, which was the fundamental goal of this portion of the program.

The second main component of the Red Cap program involved making educational presentations to organizations and community groups. The presentations included audiovisuals, lectures, literature, and explanations of arson’s early warning indicators. The role of community “witnesses” and their importance in successfully^ prosecuting and convicting arsonists were emphasized. Unit supervisors also attended various community functions and meetings, exchanging information and requesting the community’s assistance in specific ongoing investigations. While on neighborhood patrols, fire marshals distributed literature, talked to residents, and tried to open the lines of communication with the community. The Red Cap 24-hour hotline number also was distributed, along with instructions to call in information or investigative leads; residents were assured complete anonymity.

During the first year of the Operation Red Cap program, the total number of incidents in the areas designated in the program—structure fires, brush fires, vehicle fires, rubbish fires, false alarms, and incendiary fires— decreased 26 percent from the previous year. This represented more than 2,600 fewer fire incidents. Malicious false alarms decreased 21 percent—a reduction of almost 1,300 incidents. Most encouraging was an overall 16 percent decrease in the number of arson fires. The department arrest rate for arson-related crimes also increased.2


Another effective proactive arson prevention and control initiative involves using selective or preventive arson patrols, operating under the fire or police department. Their presence in arson-prone neighborhoods deters would-be arsonists. These patrols typically consist of fire marshals or police officers in marked vehicles making unannounced, random visits to selected neighborhoods to remove vandals from vacant buildings, to respond to fire calls, and to conduct surveillances of targeted buildings.

Generally, selective arson patrols are cost-effective only when used in areas with highly concentrated arson problems. Arson patrols rarely detect and apprehend professional torches, but they have been extremely effective in deterring juvenile firesetters. Fire and police officials also may choose to implement the selective arson patrol concept because of its overall success in minimizing investigators’ response time.

Covert patrol, a related technique, used limitedly in some localities, involves placing a building that represents an extremely high arson risk under surveillance. Although arrests using this technique have not been numerous, many investigative agencies probably can cite at least one instance in which an important case was developed through surveillance.


Using the media effectively is another weapon fire and law enforcement agencies can use for arson prevention and control strategy. A good example of this type of program is the Seattle (WA) Fire Department’s Arson Alarm campaign. Building on community members’ interest in information released by Seattle’s Arson Task Force, the Seattle Fire Department used television, radio, and newspapers to get its message out to residents. A 24hour hotline and a reward program complemented the public awareness and education effort. The hotline number was listed in various community directories, announced in advertisements, and printed on flyers that were posted on buildings where arson fires occurred. (Callers did not have to identify themselves.)

During the first six months of the campaign, the Seattle Fire Department received 31 calls on the hotline, representing information on approximately 12 percent of the total arson fires that occurred during that period and S 100,000 in fire losses.3 Seattle’s arson fires decreased 22 percent, and the total dollar losses resulting from these fires decreased 47 percent in the year following implementation of these anti-arson efforts. The Dallas (TX) Fire Department reported a 28 percent reduction in arson fires following the implementation of a similar media campaign.4

These efforts may not be solely responsible for the reductions reported, but a well-planned comprehensive public awareness and education campaign can help a community reduce the incidence of arson. The program should include specific anti-arson campaign strategies and should be evaluated within the context of the department’s long-term goals for arson prevention and deterrence.5


AEWS. Organizing or using existing community organizations to reduce arson incidents is another promising proactive approach. Many community-based organizations have developed effective arson early warning systems (AEWS) through which “at risk” properties are identified before fires occur. One of the more visible efforts of this nature was coordinated through the Symphony Tenants’ Organization Project (STOP) in Massachusetts. The effort led to the apprehending of an arson-for-profit ring that destroyed S6 million worth of property. STOP worked with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to redevelop the neighborhood and have neighborhood residents retain ownership of the buildings, l’he group’s efforts were widely publicized in the media, resulting in the state’s attorney general citing owners of the buildings in violation, which eventually led to a significant reduction in the number of arson fires that occurred in the neighborhood.

AWAPS. Using a similar approach, the City of New Haven, Connecticut, developed the Arson Warning and Prevention Strategy (AWAPS), funded by the insurance industry and the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA). The system, which served as a model for many jurisdictions, identified through information collected by participating municipality agencies buildings vulnerable to arson. The appropriate authorities (fire, police, and building and housing departments, for example) were notified so that appropriate response strategies could be developed and the landlords or business owners immediately notified. The arson-risk criteria included such elements as structures that had had numerous fires or that violated building and health codes. Fire officials then contacted the landlords/owners to warn them that code violations must be corrected, to persuade them that rehabilitation of the building was economically viable, and to inform them that the city would support neighborhood improvement efforts to link them with sources of low-cost financial assistance for rehabilitation.

The AWAPS program was extremely effective and proved that arson can be greatly reduced if conscious efforts are made to stop building deterioration before the structure’s economic value is eroded completely.

People’s Firehouse. Similar to the AWAPS program, this project, established in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, New York, involved developing a comprehensive data base containing information on hundreds of properties so that the structures susceptible to arson could be identified and notifications and deficiencies in the buildings corrected before the structures were burned.

Community Assistance Bulletin. The Seattle Arson Task Force mobilized its neighborhood resources by publishing the Community Assistance Bulletin, presented in the form of an open letter to residents in a neighborhood where a series of arson fires had occurred. The letter identified the times and locations of the fires and provided detailed information already known to the fire department concerning the circumstances surrounding the fires, such as descriptions of suspects or vehicles known to have been involved in the incidents. It also reminded the citizens of the city’s 24-hour hotline number and that a reward fund had been established. This approach encouraged community members to report suspicious activity and to provide the fire department with useful information or investigative leads.

Block watch. Another proactive method for controlling arson is the block watch, in which neighborhood resident groups patrol during times of heavy arson and other criminal activity

Community involvement is an integral component of any effective anticrime effort. The success of these community-based programs has led federal, state, and local government agencies, as well as some private sector organizations, to fund similar arson prevention and control programs.


Inspections by fire, building, and health department officials help to prevent and control arson in the following ways:

  • Installing fire protection and extinguishing systems reduces the potential damage resulting from an arson fire and increases the likelihood that any evidence of arson will be preserved and recovered.
  • The failure of a particular building to meet code standards may indicate that the building has lost its economic viability’ and therefore alerts fire and other arson-control agencies to the fact that the building may be a possible target for arson.
  • The property owner who complies with a mandate to upgrade a building reduces the profitability that could result from the owner-made arson fire because of the increased investment in the property.

Fire prevention must be a primary goal of any fire investigation unit. Personnel assigned fire prevention/ code enforcement duties can be extremely beneficial to a department’s overall arson prevention and control program. Code enforcement officials often are in the best position to identify buildings in disrepair and in noncompliance with fire safety, life safety, and building codes, which could indicate an arson-prone structure. By identifying these deficiencies early, corrective measures can be taken to lessen a building’s susceptibility to an arson fire. Investigators also may use properly trained code enforcement personnel to assist with origin and cause determinations during busy periods and to reduce the burden on minimally staffed investigative units. –

The proactive arson prevention and control initiatives discussed here are just a few examples of highly successful programs implemented by various jurisdictions across the country over the past decade. Although these programs were developed several years ago and some have fallen victim to the budget ax, the fact remains that they effectively’ reduced and controlled arson problems in their respective communities. Also, many communities since have developed effective programs based on and similar to these model initiatives.

The time has come to revisit, and more important, to rethink our approach to arson prevention and control. A reactive strategy’ based solely on law enforcement clearly is inadequate and will never control today’’s arson problem. By implementing proactive strategies such as those outlined in this article, the fire service and law enforcement communities stand a better chance of controlling a crime that consistently has caused billions of dollars in property damage and hundreds of deaths annually.


  1. Karter, Michael J., Jr. “Fire Loss in the United States During 1990.” NFPA Journal, Sept./Oct., 1991, 37.
  2. Godek, Christine R. and Marilyn J. Hignett. “Red Cap.” The International Fire Chief, Nov. 1982, 15-16.
  3. Arson Prevention and Control. National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice. Jan. 1980, 90.
  4. Ibid., 90.
  5. Ibid., 90-91.

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