More With Less

More With Less


Twelve steps to building an arson prevention program when the funding’s tight.

Stopping arson or incendiary fires is easier said than done. The arson prevention programs that many fire departments would like to implement cost big money —money that often isn’t available; instead, departments are asked to do more with less.

What options does a chief have when there’s a worthy idea but no funds? Improvise.

This article outlines a simple, cost-effective, and comprehensive arson prevention program. It takes time and effort to carry out each of its 12 steps, especially when politics and bureaucratic red tape can stall or stop even the best ideas.

Illustration by Arthur Arias

Keep in mind, too, that not every step may be applicable to your coverage area.

The definition of an arsonist as used in this article is anyone who starts a fire for any reason —not just for profit, revenge, or to cover another crime. Homeless people wanting to keep warm in the winter, juveniles wanting a “kick,” and irresponsible street people are capable of starting fires and causing loss of life or property. They waste our personnel and resources, depleting forces that are already overworked.

Step One: Research

Computers can store the information needed to start or boost an arson prevention program. If your bureau or department doesn’t have access to a computer, the information is often recorded in books, logs, and files.

Use the department’s records and documents from local government agencies to pinpoint buildings that are ripe for arson or accidental fires. Look for areas where there have been been numerous suspicious fires in the past, and locate all abandoned or vacant structures. Municipal building and housing officials, as well as planning and zoning boards, may have the needed information.

This information can be stored on a computer in virtually any way that fits your department’s needs. There’s also a software program on the market that creates a record of such data, weighs it, and generates the statistical probability index, which outlines a building’s likelihood of being a target for arson.

Step Two: Target structures

After identifying and organizing the properties that fit your arson profile, attempt to contact the owner. Tell the owner that his building might be ripe for a fire, whether accidental or intentional. Request his help to prevent this from happening either by boarding up or demolishing the building, or by securing it. If the owner refuses to cooperate, seek whatever legal action is needed for compliance. If it’s private property, can the building be boarded up or even demolished, and the owner billed? Can the owner be fined or taken to court? If the property is owned by the municipality, contact the department that oversees it and explain the situation. Whatever the case, make sure to keep a record.

Step Three: Investigators

The physical security of targeted structures is the most vital part of a department’s efforts to curtail arson. A department’s investigators can check these buildings to make sure there’s no one loitering or trespassing on the property. These checks can be made during any free time away from fire scenes, witness interviews, or other arson investigation tasks; larger departments may be able to detail an investigator who will do nothing but check targeted buildings during an entire shift. If you’ve been unable to contact an owner about demolition or boarding up a building, then this is about the only way to make that building safe from fire.

Step Four: Law enforcement

The police are a mobile, highly visible force that your program needs to use to its fullest. There are usually far more uniformed officers on the streets at a given time than arson investigators; request that beat officers periodically check targeted buildings, especially in cold, winter months. Vagrants and drunks seeking shelter from the elements often start fires in abandoned buildings that they inhabit.

The police department maintains a vast source of criminal information that a fire department needs to know. When implementing an arson prevention program, one of the first contacts should be the police. Fire departments need their help to reach the goal of reducing arson.

Step Five: Training

Training is important in all aspects of arson investigation and prosecution. It would be unthinkable and unprofessional if suspicious fires weren’t prosecuted because an investigator didn’t have the proper skills to identify arson.

In addition to basic training, investigators need to be kept informed on new investigative methods and arsonists’ modi operandi. They need to be made aware of fringe groups that use fire in their rituals and of gangs that often perform arson-for-profit. Investigators need to be knowledgeable about the latest in explosives and incendiary devices used by professional arsonists.

Although the lack of funding has affected the quantity of arson training programs, they still exist through private organizations and on the federal and state levels. There’s a vast source of printed information available from federal agencies, such as the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, as well as state and local agencies.

Step Six: Suppression units

Because suppression units usually arrive at a fire before arson investigators, it’s essential that personnel know what to look for at the scene. Train them to recognize clues when they arrive and during overhaul operations, and train them to preserve evidence. This can be accomplished at no cost by having the department’s arson investigators provide such instruction at a drill. Countless arson cases probably go undetected because suppression personnel don’t know what to look for, and yet they’re the first-line defense in helping to stop arson.

If suppression forces help investigators make an arson case, tell them what to expect in the courtroom and on the witness stand. Be certain an arson investigator goes over every aspect with them before the trial date.

Step Seven: Insurance companies

Insurance companies have a vested interest in arson and arson prevention campaigns. They spend millions of dollars each year on arson and related settlements from fire losses, and they employ investigators that specialize in arson work.

Build a partnership with the companies. They have much information in their files that can help strengthen a department’s arson case: prior losses of an individual; records of false statements made on prior claims; financial backgrounds; and previously owned occupancies and businesses. One insurance arson investigator urges better cooperation between the public and private sector regarding arson.

“I’ve been contacted about three times in the past ten years for assistance,” says John Barracato, director of Aetna Life and Casualty’s Fire and Fraud section. “There hasn’t been much cooperation between insurance companies and police and fire departments. We’ve got to learn to work together and trust each other.”

Step Eight: Prosecutor’s office

The county prosecutor can make or break a good arson case. Take the time to establish a good, solid relationship with the prosecutor and the staff; tell them about the department’s arson prevention program and plans. If the staff is large enough, ask that one or two attorneys be assigned to handle all arson and arson-related cases that go to court. These attorneys can then work closely with the department’s arson investigators and gain the experience needed to successfully prosecute the cases. It also takes the frustration out of having to deal with a different prosecutor every time a case goes to trial. The arrangement soon proves to be an effective team effort that gets results. All it costs is a discussion—and maybe lunch — with the chief prosecutor.

Step Nine: Legislative action

Legislation gives prosecutors the tools to work with. Department personnel can work with legislators to strengthen existing arson laws, or develop new ones.

First, research existing state and local laws. Does your state law establish minimum sentences to be served for arson crimes? How much time must be served before the convicted arsonist is eligible for parole? Does the victim have a right to be present at the parole hearing? Check whether your state has a persistent felony statute, one that enables additional time to be added on to a sentence if there’s been previous felony convictions. The chances are that your state’s arson laws are pretty much the same as those in bordering states. But you never know what a little research might turn up in the way of deficiencies that beg for correction.

Arson bulletin board

Organizing data at the local level isn’t the only role computers can play in a fire department’s battle against arson. A nationwide electronic bulletin board offers quick access to arson-related printed materials and resources.

The Arson Resource Center, established several years ago by the U.S. Fire Administration, has a computer bulletin board on line. Users have access to a list of the books, articles, and pamphlets the Center has in its collection. An electronic mail system takes messages or questions so ARC librarians can return calls. Librarians can research general questions, photocopy a limited number of journal articles, and tell how to borrow a particular book.

The electronic bulletin board has been in existence for about a year, says librarian Suzanne Posey, and averages between 30 to 40 calls each month.

“It’s probably still not widely known,” says the librarian.

The bulletin board can be accessed on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays between 12 p.m. to 9 p.m. EST by calling (301) 447-2787. For those without computer access, librarians at the Learning Resource Center in Emmitsburg, Md. can be reached by calling (301) 4471032 or 1 (800) 638-1821.

If the laws in your state aren’t tough enough, act now. Contact the state attorney general and your district’s state legislators, and see what changes can be made. Changes in a state law are sometimes difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish. A local elected official with whom your agency has a good working relationship can be a helpful ally. Remember, arsonists must be sent a message that they’ll serve time if convicted. The cost to this step in your arson prevention program amounts to nothing but time and research.

Step Ten: Neighborhood involvement

“A community is like a piece of fabric,” says Alex A. Ahart, executive secretary of the International Association of Arson Investigators. “And every time there’s a fire, it burns a hole in the piece of fabric. Burn the fabric enough, and it won’t hold together.”

Involve the community by enlisting the aid of “block watch” captains and other responsible neighborhood leaders. If they can’t help, they’ll likely know someone who can. Check your options for spreading the word that arsonists will be caught and prosecuted. Neighborhood newsletters or newspapers may be willing to run free advertisements as a public service. Post “arson watch” signs on utility poles, buildings, billboards, and other places where they’ll be easily seen. Expect to spend some money for the printing of signs and other advertisements.

Step Eleven: Community agencies

It’s important to support and use whatever community agencies are available. For example, juvenile rehabilitation programs can help keep young arsonists from becoming repeat offenders. Through the courts, first-time juvenile offenders can be assigned to these programs, and receive the necessary counseling and supervision. These and similar programs are often operated by churches, private, nonprofit foundations, and other community groups. Don’t overlook the fact that they can help combat a community’s arson problem, and it doesn’t cost a cent to enlist their aid. Without effective treatment, a small problem can grow into a larger one in just a few years.

Step Twelve: Media

Many police departments use local radio and television stations to air a 30or 60-second “Crime Stoppers” public service spot. These spots highlight cases that the police have little or no hope of solving without help from the public. However, rarely do they highlight an arson-related crime, most likely because there are other more spectacular cases. Contact local radio and television stations and see if they’ll run selected unsolved arson-related cases with the other spots. Ask for additional press coverage in the department’s fight against arson. It’s there for the asking, and it’s usually free of charge.

After an arson prevention program has been implemented, monitor its progress. Be open to modifications and ideas suggested by your personnel. Keep it alive and active; don’t let it die once the initial waves of enthusiasm are over. It will he worth the time and effort and could save lives.

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