Fire Investigator First Becomes Cop To Be Successful
Tulare, Calif., Fire Department
Many fire departments, after making determination of arson, turn apprehension and prosecution over to local police only to find that in many cases the police have neither the time, inclination, nor expertise to successfully conclude the case.
Some departments hand the case to a fire marshal who, because of countless other duties, can seldom devote his undivided attention to the investigation.
Only the large departments have had the budget and manpower to staff positions whose sole function is fire investigation coupled with vigorous prosecution when arson is determined.
Tulare, Calif., is a community of approximately 20,000 population, located in California’s great San Joaquin Valley, and has an economy based on agribusiness and light industry. The fire department of 25 paid fire fighters and 10 reserves has a solid and progressive reputation.
In 1976, after watching incendiary fires creep toward 50 percent of the annual fire loss, the department’s staff began to seriously consider the position of a full-time fire investigator. After receiving the green light from city management, early in 1977 a shift fire fighter was given the title of fire investigator.
Other departments have done the same, taken a fire fighter, given him a few classes on fire cause and effect, called him an investigator, and then discovered he lacked knowledge of police techniques, such as arrest and interrogation procedures.
Having viewed the failures of some of these experiments, we determined that our investigator would be trained to handle the case from start to finish with every chance for success.
Our first step was to place our investigator with the city police patrol division for 10 weeks. This enabled him to learn the ways and habits of the people in the street. During this time, he wrote citations, made arrests, handled citizen complaints and, in short, participated in all aspects of a patrolman’s job.
Next, he spent eight weeks with the detective division, learning investigative techniques, report writing, interrogation, crime scene activity and evidence preservation.
Our investigator was then accepted in the Police Academy and after six weeks graduated and became a sworn police officer in the City of Tulare.
Only then did his training as a fire investigator begin. He had only two years as a fire fighter when chosen for the position and was able to avoid the know-it-all syndrome so common in more experienced men. He now began to investigate all fires in our jurisdiction, assisted by and learning from the chief and fire marshal. He also attended classes in structural fire investigation, courtroom testimony, explosive ordinance and vehicle fire investigation.
It paid off! Shortly after graduating from the Police Academy, our investigator tackled a three-month-old, suspicious $50,000 dwelling fire which had been written off by the department. He was able to determine the cause and culprit. He was accepted by the court as an expert witness, and he obtained a conviction.
Our choice of man and training has been vindicated by his performance. Since that first conviction in 1977, he has made 33 arrests for arson, 23 of which resulted in convictions.
With rising arson costs, we can no longer lend credence to the argument that “small towns can’t afford to specialize.” We did it; so can you!