How an Arson Squad Reduced Big Losses
Organized in Portland, Ore., for the Prosecution of Arson Cases and Investigations—Work Credited in Reducing High Losses
THE Fire Prevention Division of the Portland Fire Department was created by an ordinance passed by the City Council in 1914, after an investigation of our fire loss which had been increasing each year. The fire losses had reached a point where the insurance companies were losing money. They threatened a 25% increase in fire insurance rates.
Our Fire Prevention Ordinance provides that the commissioner in charge of the Bureau of Fire shall appoint from among the members of the Bureau a qualified member who shall act as fire marshal. This officer has the authority to appoint from members of the Bureau of Fire as many assistant fire marshals as he thinks necessary to carry on the work of fire prevention, investigation as to the cause of fire, and the prosecution of arson.
The present Fire Marshal, Edward Grenfell who is the first Assistant Chief of the Fire Department, has been the fire marshal of Portland for the last ten years. He has under his supervision the organization of the bureau, consisting of:
Chief Inspector, Secretary, Arson Squad, Inspector of Mills and Factories, Inspector of Theatres, Clerk and Stenographer, Thirteen men who act as relief men for the Company, Officers who carry on the work of inspection in their respective districts, and who enforce the provisions of the Fire Code.
The Arson Squad of this city at the present time consists of four men, Captain Frank McFarland, Captain Alex Holden, Investigators Baxter Moore, and Earl Hoover. Two men work on a shift of 24 hours, answering all fire alarms that occur in the city. They respond, if possible, at the time of the alarm, and begin at once to acquaint themselves with the cause of the fire. The prompt arrival of the Arson Squad at the scene of the fire has often meant the securing of the Corpus Delicti. Much valuable information is gathered by mingling in the crowd, by interviewing the owners of the building, and by examination of the material on fire. On some occasions people liave been known to have their fire insurance policies on their person at the time of the fire.
Companies Must Not Disturb Things
In the event that a fire occurs and the Arson Squad is detained by a previous fire or some unforeseen circumstances, the Captains of the companies responding to the alarm are required by the rules and regulations governing the Bureau of Fire, not to disturb anything that may be used as evidence, and to leave a man in charge until the arrival of the investigators. Upon ascertaining that the fire is of incendiary origin, the official photographer of the Bureau, Captain Walter Wilson is called, and photographs are taken. This work requires the services of an expert, as these photographs are taken at all hours of the day and night, from all angles, and under conditions far from ideal. These photographs are used in Grand Jury investigations and in District Court and have greatly assisted in securing convictions.
The elimination process is used to ascertain the person responsible for the fire. All parties concerned are called in to the office of the Fire Marshal. Here they are interviewed and statements are taken and compared. Everybody connected with the fire, regardless of rank or position is questioned. Prominent business men have been known to be involved in fires of incendiary origin.
Presentation of Case
All evidence is placed before the District Attorney’s Office and if deemed sufficient, a warrant is issued for the arrest of the guilty parties. If the evidence is not sufficient for immediate action, the case is taken before the Grand Jury. Providing a True Bill is returned by this body the Arson Squad preserves the evidence until the case comes up for trial, it is marked for identification and put in sealed containers and kept under lock and key until the trial. The sealing of these containers is only done when gasoline, coal oil, etc., have been used, and it is necessary to keep the odor. The old days of the coal oil firebug, however, are almost gone. They being replaced by more modern methods.
The investigators keep in contact with local business conditions, and the financial circumstances of business houses. Firms that are reported as bad risks are watched.
A detailed report of every fire is made and an indexed card system on all fires and persons connected therewith is maintained in the office. This has proved to be of valuable assistance in checking up on incendiary fires, as the firebug is like the rest of the criminal class in the respect that if he gets by with one fire he will try it again.
Classes of Incendiarism
Incendiarism may be divided into three classes:
- Burning with the intent to defraud an insurer.
- Malicious intent, or to conceal crime.
- Fires by the pyromaniac, or one who has an insane impulse to destroy by fire.
The most difficult task for the Arson Investigator is detecting the criminal work of the pyromaniac, as this class of firebug works entirely alone and with no apparent motive.
During the past two years, eight pyromaniacs have been apprehended in this city, confessing to setting 99 fires, causing a fire loss of over a million dollars.
Pyromaniacs Start Many Fires
One of the most baffling cases of this description in the history of the Arson Squad of this city, occurred in recent years.
The investigators while answering an alarm of fire would be close on the trail of a suspected firebug when another fire would occur, which upon investigation would prove to be of incendiary origin. This second fire would be so far away from the first that it would be impossible to connect both of these fires with the one man. It was evident that two pyromaniacs were operating in the city at the same time, one in the eastern and the other in the western section of the city. These men confessed to a combined total of 86 incendiary fires.
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How Arson Squad Reduced Losses
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The pyromaniacs themselves seem to he unable to explain their reasons for these depredations, though they almost all’say they are relieved of a nervous strain as soon as the fire is set.
Our Arson Squad has been most successful in locating the pyromaniac firebug in the crowd watching the fire, and from descriptions of suspicious persons seen about the premises, furnished by the occupants of the place set on fire, or their neighbors.
The rigid investigation of fires and the prosecution of arsonists has been one of the greatest factors in reducing the fire loss in the City of Portland, Oregon, which at the beginning of Fire Prevention work in 1914 was $6.89 per capita, as compared with the per capita fire loss for the year 1927 of $2.07.