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Setting up a Community Based Anti-Arson Program

Written by:
Bob Corry
Director, American Re
Fire Investigation Specialist

Joseph P. Toscano
VP, American Re
Fire Investigation Specialist

A community's "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".

This approach 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.

"Thinking 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.

InterFIRE VR can help.

Heads-Up Leadership

If arson is a problem in your community begin by recognizing that whatever you are doing right now is not working and needs to be changed.

The most 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.

Recognize 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.

Uncontrolled 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.

"Outside the Box"

There are 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.

In 1996, 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.

His regular "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 then some.

Nearly bankrupt, 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.

Thinking 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.

FEMA's National 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 & trucks.

Cityhall estimated that this fourteen-day program saved local taxpayers two million dollars.

 

Outside the box?

  • Use of public employees & publicly owned equipment to tear down abandoned buildings?
  • Get a closed landfill reopened for the expressed purpose of receiving C & D (construction & demolition) debris from tearing down abandoned buildings?
  • 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?

It happened.

Could this be done elsewhere?

Absolutely.

A crack, 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 rate.

Net result? Today, Utica'a arson problem is less than one-half of what it was just a couple of years ago.

New Haven, Connecticut

During an 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).

The AWACS 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.

Using AWACS 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.

Net result? No arson fires at these target buildings.

Outside the box?

Yes.

Could this be done in another community?

Absolutely.

Fixing Broken Windows

In their 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.

New York 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?

Avoid the bankrupt "Morning After" Mentality

Avoid the most common mistake that communities with arson problems make.

Municipal 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.

The "new" 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.

 

InterFIRE VR

InterFIRE offers a wealth of ideas, resources and linkages to help you form an Arson Prevention & Control Program wherever you are.

interFIRE's 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 Arson Unit.
  • 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 arson problems.
  • 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 building.
  • Model "Anti-Blight Law" for stepped up building & sanitary code enforcement.

Additional Important Resources

The U.S. 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 usfapub@fema.gov, 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.

Cities in 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.

The National 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.

This packet of information contains, among other things, information and advice on subjects such as:

    • National Arson Prevention Clearinghouse Brochure.
    • Partnership for Arson Awareness
    • Juvenile Firesetter Brochure
    • Board Up Procedures
    • Protecting structures from arson brochure

Summary

Every meaningful 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.

InterFIRE 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.

Control of 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.

Take it.

This article appears courtesy of Munich Re America, Inc. formerly American Re-Insurance Company.

 

 

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