"arson problem" can run the gamut from vandals setting the old Boy Scout
camp headquarters on fire to wholesale incendiarism threatening a troubled
city's existence. While the scope of the problem may vary, the best way
to permanently win the fight against arson is always the same:
the "Arson Prevention and Control Program".
draws on the resources, expertise and leadership present, but too often
untapped, within every community and from the local, county, state and
federal governments. Arson Prevention & Control Programs have suppressed
major arson crisis's in some of the toughest, most troubled cities in
the United States. Any community with the grit to fight can win this war.
outside the Box" - the willingness to try new approaches to old problems
- is the key to success.
Once a community
reaches the point where it decides "enough is enough", whether
that takes two or two thousand arson fires, it is ready to embrace the
Arson Prevention & Control Program and begin the process of re-taking
control of its own streets.
VR can help.
is a problem in your community begin by recognizing that whatever you
are doing right now is not working and needs to be changed.
important indicator of the effectiveness of your current program is its
fire/arson trend rate. Simply stated, if the number of arson fires
is static, or even worse increasing, then your present system is failing.
Any community with a program that is not continuously reducing its arson
trend needs to change course.
early that unchecked arson is a recipe for community disaster. Almost
any other type of crime scene except arson can be cleaned up and usually
quickly fades from the public consciousness. Burned out buildings and
weed & trash choked vacant lots, where buildings once stood, are the
ultimate symbol of civic disintegration.
arson, along with other serious crime, creates rampant fear among residents,
business customers and potential visitors. If the community's streets
seem out of control, people will be afraid to come into that area to visit
or do business. These conditions can quickly lead to a second stage where
residents who can afford to move out begin selling homes, even at a loss,
to escape before "the bottom drops out". Property tax collections
plummet giving the community less and less resources to fight back with.
In the worse
arson plagued communities that we've seen, the value of citizen's homes
and businesses have actually gone to zero. On the way down this
situation feeds on itself sometimes causing ordinary citizens to turn
to arson themselves to get their property insurance carriers to pay for
their worthless investments.
many different examples of how creative people responded to the arson
crisis in their community. Two examples will help to illustrate the options
available to everyone.
One of the
best creative solutions occurred in Utica, New York a couple of years
ago. Years of one major regional economic setback after another took their
toll on this small city, that only a decade before, was voted one of the
ten safest cities in the United States.
Billy Shrader was Commissioner of Public Works (DPW) in Utica when the
number of arson fires began going though the roof. Out on these streets
every day the obvious hit him - the arson targets were usually blighted
& abandoned single or two family houses.
"job" was to maintain the roadways and parks of the city with about 30
personnel, a dozen five ton trucks and a few pieces of heavy equipment
including a Caterpillar excavator. He did his regular job every day and
Utica didn't have the funds to deal with the hundreds of abandoned structures
on its streets. Private contractors would charge as much as $20 to $30
thousand dollars to remove just one building. Additional cost factors
included asbestos mitigation & air monitoring, "tipping fees" at the
county's private landfill and, adding insult to injury, the $1,000 "fee"
that New York State charged a local community for a "permit" to tear down
each abandoned building. The entire quagmire looked like an insurmountable
barrier to ever restoring community order.
outside the box, Shrader had a few of his men trained & certified
as asbestos technicians. Instead of using hyper-expensive private contractors
the DPW technicians did the asbestos mitigation required by law. The Utica
Department of Public Works crew learned and complied with regulations
regarding air quality and then DPW workers, using the city excavator and
city trucks began to tear down the worst rat traps, one-by-one, at a rate
of three a week.
Arson Prevention Initiative came to town in 1997, saw what Shrader had
done & began thinking outside the box on an even larger scale. With
help from the County Executive's Office, Governor's Office & a local
congressman, a closed local landfill was reopened & the City declared
an "Arson Emergency" allowing the New York State Army National Guard to
get directly involved.
In only fourteen
days, working round the clock, a total of ninety-four derelict buildings
in the "arson hot zone" were cleared and their lots re-graded. During
this "Incident Command" controlled program, five decrepit buildings were
being demolished simultaneously on different streets by five different
teams each with an assigned excavator, safety officer and DPW & National
Guard truck crews. Two of the excavators belonged to the City of Utica,
one came from the New York State DPW and two others were specially leased
by the Oneida County Executive's Office.
All the excavator
operators, truck drivers & safety officers, except three trucks with
drivers donated by local contractors, were either DPW employees or National
Guardsman. Overnight, a second shift of soldiers backfilled foundation
holes and graded lots using U.S. Army National Guard bulldozers &
estimated that this fourteen-day program saved local taxpayers two million
- Use of
public employees & publicly owned equipment to tear down abandoned
- Get a
closed landfill reopened for the expressed purpose of receiving C &
D (construction & demolition) debris from tearing down abandoned
- Get the
state to issue the city just one $1000 permit that allowed ninety-four
buildings to be torn down & disposed of for free?
- Use Army
National Guard soldiers to help a community to help beat arson &
restore order to an inner city neighborhood?
be done elsewhere?
interagency Fire/Arson Investigation Unit was also formed under the National
Arson Prevention Initiative. Its members came from city fire and police,
Oneida County Sheriff & New York State Police Detectives, State Fire
Marshal Investigators and the ATF. In just a few short weeks after being
set up they turned the tables on one arsonist after another. Two years
later and the Unit and its team prosecutor have a perfect 100% conviction
Today, Utica'a arson problem is less than one-half of what it was just
a couple of years ago.
arson crisis in 1985, New Haven, Connecticut, formed an interagency Arson
Strike Force consisting of municipal police & fire personnel, an investigator
from the State's Attorney's Office, state police and ATF Agents. The Unit
distinguished itself by clearing over one-half of arson fires and also
devised a novel arson prevention program called "AWACS" (Arson Warning
& Control System).
program networked all cityhall Department computers involved with housing
and commercial buildings including the Building & Sanitary Code Enforcement
Department, the Fire Department Records & Inspection Departments,
the Property Tax Department and others. Searching these records, fire
investigators discovered that most buildings that sustained arson fires
had numerous sanitary and building code violations, tax arrearages, fire
code violations and prior fires.
information, investigators took the characteristics of prior arson locations
and searched cityhall records for buildings that shared similar problems
but which had not yet suffered an arson fire. The landlords of these buildings
were sent a personal letter advising them of the profile and warning them
that a major local-state-federal investigation would be immediately launched
into any fire at any of these buildings.
No arson fires at these target buildings.
be done in another community?
famous book on reversing community decline, Fixing Broken Windows,
by George L. Kelling & Catherine M. Coles, the point is made over
and over about the connection between disorder and crime. Impressive improvements
in public safety have occurred in cities where real "community policing"
has been adopted.
In this new
system, public safety officials (police and fire) work directly with citizens
and other governmental officials in troubled areas to resolve daily minor
problems such as code violations affecting sanitary conditions (trash,
filthy yards, etc.), safety (unsafe & unsecured buildings, unlockable
doors, etc.), graffiti, excessive noise, loitering teenagers, gangs, drug
pushers, street lights out and the other seemingly small problems that
together add up to disorder.
City, Boston, LA & other large and small communities that have seen
the light and adopted prevention measures that targeted specific problems
in "hot zones" were rewarded with wholesale reductions in crime. realized
that "small" problems left unchecked feed major crime.
How do we
get started? Where do we begin?
bankrupt "Morning After" Mentality
most common mistake that communities with arson problems make.
governments often spring into action the morning after another
spectacular, "suspicious" fire has resulted in multiple fatalities
or the media runs a story about the local "arson problem" that
embarrasses city hall. Typically, the mayor, surround by a phalanx of
serious looking uniformed public safety officials, announces the "new"
initiative to beat back the arson crisis.
initiative usually means a few more police and firefighters are temporarily
assigned to the "Arson Squad" to beef up its operations. The
anti-arson campaign continues long enough for a handful of well-publicized
arrests to be made and for the problem to temporarily drift off the front
page. When this happens the extra personnel are returned to original assignments,
budgets are cut and, since none of the underlying problems were affected,
the arson problem soon returns.
offers a wealth of ideas, resources and linkages to help you form an Arson
Prevention & Control Program wherever you are.
Tutorials and Resource Section contain detailed information that can help
you form an interagency Arson Strike Force. To start, interFIRE's fire/arson
investigation model protocol explained in the Tutorial section is similar
to the operational protocol used by several urban Arson Units that successfully
reversed an arson crisis in their jurisdiction.
Some of the
Arson Prevention & Control Program topics covered in interFIRE's Tutorial
and in the Resource Section include:
Tutorials: "Before the Fire"
Resource Section: "Before the Fire"
- Design & Implement Prevention Strategies
- Create a Fire Investigation Plan
- Define Official Responsibilities
- Equip your Investigative Team (basic, intermediate &
major incident response vehicle levels.
- Model Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to help set up an interagency
- Tips on building a community based anti-arson coalition.
- Arson Prevention Programs around the U.S.
- Training & Professional Qualifications
- The "Team Concept"
- Innovative community-based housing initiatives to help solve
- The Team Concept - What we've learned about setting up an effective
fire investigation program.
- Step by step instructions on how to effectively mothball a vacant
- Model "Anti-Blight Law" for stepped up building &
sanitary code enforcement.
Fire Administration's Publication Division has a wealth of additional
resources on arson prevention, establishing community based anti-arson
programs, juvenile firesetter intervention programs and more. Obtain a
catalogue by calling 301 - 447 - 1189, via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org,
on the worldwide web at www.usfa.fema.gov
or via U.S. Mail at Publications Center, United States Fire Administration,
16825 South Seton Ave. Emmitsburg, MD 21727.
arson crisis right now should get a copy of the video/manual program entitled,
It Can Happen Anywhere. This program details how a successful,
community based, interagency Arson Prevention & Control system was
set up practically overnight in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1992 when that
community reportedly had the highest arson rate in the country. By 1997,
Lawrence Fire Chief Dick Shafer stated the city had reached its lowest
arson rate in 30 years. This program is available for free from the U.S.
Fire Administration's Publication Division or by calling Andy Giglio,
USFA, at the United States Fire Administration at 301-447-1021.
Arson Prevention Clearinghouse, located on the grounds of the United States
Fire Administration, has assembled brochures and supplementary materials
on arson prevention available, free of cost, which can help a community
get a program started.
You can contact
Clearinghouse staff by calling toll free at 1-888-603-3100 during business
hours (8AM - 4:30PM EST), by FAX at 301 - 447 -1566 or by writing to the
National Arson Prevention Clearinghouse, 16825 South Seton Ave. Emmitsburg,
MD 21727 or view their web site at www.usfa.fema.gov/napi.
of information contains, among other things, information and advice
on subjects such as:
Arson Prevention Clearinghouse Brochure.
for Arson Awareness
structures from arson brochure
change in society begins with a leader and a handful of committed individuals
determined to change things for the better. Control of fire and arson,
like other multi-faceted problems, responds best and most permanently
to solutions that address both contributing factors and symptoms. Arson
Prevention & Control Programs are designed to dramatically increase
case clearance (arrest) rates by much more proficient investigation working
side-by-side with organized prevention actions.
All of the
best programs assembled a combination of traditional and non-traditional
approaches to fit the local situation. Recognize that if your community
has a chronic arson problem then whatever has been done in the past is
not working & needs to be changed.
VR encourages communities to adopt the inter-agency approach. When forming
an Fire/Arson Investigation Unit recognize that partnering with other
agencies with overlapping fire/arson investigation jurisdiction gets you
more than just a few bodies - you bring all of the human & materials
resources, intelligence and forensic capabilities
of those organizations. Likewise when you seek to form the Prevention
Coalition ask yourself what local, regional and national agencies &
organizations have the personnel, expertise & equipment resources
to help you solve the situation.
fire and arson in a community is one of those issues that serve everyone's
needs for a healthy community. When everyone's interests are at stake
the ground is ready for action.
This article appears courtesy of Munich Re America, Inc. formerly American Re-Insurance Company.