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Working Against Arson

Written by:
Ed Comeau
USA 1-413-323-6002 (tel)
1-413-323-5295 (fax)
e-mail to:ecomeau@writer-tech.com
Reprinted with permission from NFPA Journal®,
Vol, 95, No. 1
Copyright ©2001, National Fire Protection Association,
Quincy MA 02269


Activated in August 1999, the DuPage County, Illinois, fire investigation task force is hoping to have an impact in the fight against arson.




In 1997, two investigators working at a fire scene in DuPage County, Illinois, started talking about the low number of arson cases that were actually prosecuted in their jurisdiction. They both knew that there were many more instances of arson than were being put through the court system.

This conversation between Detective Dennis Rogers of the DuPage County Sheriff's Office and Special Agent John Gamboa of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) was the genesis of the DuPage County Fire Investigation Task Force. The task force is made up of representatives of all the fire and law enforcement agencies in DuPage County, as well as the ATF, the Illinois State Fire Marshal's Office, the State Attorney's Office, the private sector, and the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB).

Before the task force was created, however, two years of leg work had to be done to convince local, state, federal, and private-sector authorities that such an entity was needed.

Researching arson cases

Following the 1997 DuPage County fire, Gamboa and Rogers did some research of their own and discovered some startling statistics. Using the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) database and information from the state fire marshal, they determined that a number of arson cases were going unreported or undetermined annually and only three to five cases were being prosecuted on average every year.

"During the years of 1995, 1996, and 1997," says Rogers, "There was an average of one arson fire per day in DuPage County. We realized we had a problem that wasn't being addressed."

One reason the state attorney's office gave for the low prosecution rate was the inconsistency in the way different agencies and departments investigated fire scenes. Because so many cases relied on circumstantial evidence, the state attorney's office needed to bolster its prosecution with physical evidence, which had to be collected in such a manner that it wouldn't be thrown out during the trial. The inconsistencies in investigation created questions about the strength of many cases and doubts as to whether they would stand up in court.

Working together

According to Rogers, there are 36 different fire departments, or fire districts, in DuPage County, as well as 33 police departments, none of which worked together on arson cases historically. Once a fire was determined to be arson, the fire department's involvement ended, and law enforcement took over the case.

"The fire department wouldn't even know the result of the case until they saw it in the newspapers," Gamboa says. Obviously, something had to change.

Rogers and Gamboa started researching different task force operations across the country. After looking into about a dozen, they chose the what they believed to be the best elements for the DuPage County task force and began to put them together in a plan. However, they soon realized that they'd need the support of both the law enforcement and fire service cojavascript:MMunities before they could even consider implementing their ideas.

The two men began attending meetings of fire and police chiefs to find out how they'd react to the idea of a mutual task force.

"When we asked the fire chiefs what they'd like to see in a task force," says Gamboa, "the two responses were 'viable training' and 'cooperation with the police department.'"

"The fire chiefs came on quickly because they're used to working under mutual aid," says Rogers.

The police chiefs were hesitant, however, primarily because they didn't want the feds coming in and taking over the investigation. Gamboa realized that he needed someone who was respected by both law enforcement and the fire service to support the idea and promote it with both groups. The ideal person was someone in the state attorney's office, since both groups had to interact with this agency on a regular basis.

When Rogers and Gamboa approached the state's attorney, he was skeptical about the statistics they brought him.

"He had his own people review them," Gamboa says. "Then he came back and admitted that there was a problem. He said he would back the task force 100 percent. He went to the chiefs with this support."

Two state attorneys are now assigned to the task force and attend training along side all the other investigators.

With this type of support, the concept for a multijurisdictional task force started to take shape.

"Now, we have every police and fire chief supporting us and working together," Rogers says. "This is the first time that they've had the chance to work together on such a large scale, and they're meeting and forming friendships as a result."

One of the advantages that Rogers had is that he's not only a detective in the DuPage Sheriff's office, but he's also a third-generation firefighter in his hometown volunteer fire department. This allows him to understand how each agency operates and how best to bring them together.

"The police departments were very surprised at the knowledge that the fire service has about arson and fire investigations," Rogers says. "The only way it works is to have both agencies working together."

As a result of his valuable skills, Rogers was selected to serve as cojavascript:MMander of the task force, which became operational on September 1, 1999.

Task force training

One critical component of the task force was training. "Everyone wanted training, but any training we put on had to be sanctioned by a governing body," said Gamboa. "If ATF was in charge of the training, it could cause problems because of the perception that the feds were running everything."

So the next step was to find such a governing body. In Illinois, fire investigators must undergo training provided by the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute in Urbana. This seemed like a natural source for the training, so the task force approached Investigations/Prevention Program Director Terry Smith-despite the fact that the proposed task force didn't have a budget and the institute normally charges for the training it provides.

"The institute saw that the training program was innovative... so they donated their training to us," Rogers says.

To oversee the program outlined for the task force and determine the program's criteria, an education cojavascript:MMittee was put together. The cojavascript:MMittee is made up of a cross-section of people, among them two ATF Certified Fire Investigators (CFIs), professors from the University of Illinois, the state attorney, private attorneys, and personnel from the fire and law enforcement cojavascript:MMunities.

A comprehensive program

"There's a different topic each month with a different presenter," Smith says. Topics include interviewing, evidence collection, and fire science.

"Right now, we're going through NFPA 921, Guide to Fire and Explosion Investigations, and when we've completed that, we're going to move onto other texts, such as Kirk's Fire Investigation."

Every member of the task force has been given a copy of NFPA 921; NFPA 1033, Professional Qualifications for Fire Investigators; and Kirk's Fire Investigation. They've also received copies of interFIRE VR, an interactive, computer-based training tool developed by a public-private partnership that included ATF, NFPA, the United States Fire Administration (USFA), and American Re-Insurance. InterFIRE VR covers the concept of the team approach around which the task force is centered, as well as interview-driven investigations.

In addition to the monthly training programs, the students must participate in an independent study program, which Smith estimates takes about six hours to complete. Each student is also given a study guide, and material from the study guide, references, and material presented by the guest lecturer are incorporated into the test they must pass to complete the program. The exam consists of 25 to 40 multiple-choice questions.

"Student who don't pass the exam," Gamboa says, "are allowed to take it a second time. If they still don't pass, they're placed in an inactive status and given a chance to study and retake it one more time. If they fail, then they're dropped from the task force."

The goal of the training is to ensure that everyone who participates in the task force is certified to Illinois standards as a minimum. Many of them already are, according to Smith.

"We're striving toward members being able to achieve International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI) CFI certification," he says. The current testing system helps the students obtain points that can be applied towards their IAAI certification. In addition to the classroom training, students have the opportunity to conduct live burns. Assisting in this are two fire protection engineers from Gage-Babcock, Jerry Schultz and Romeo Gervais.

"We saw the announcement in the newspaper," says Schultz, a principal with Gage-Babcock, "and we thought it would be a good thing for us to help with."

One area in which Gage-Babcock is helping is computer modeling.

"They burned a building, and we're modeling the fire so that the investigators can understand the value of modeling," Schultz says.

Overseeing the task force

A governing board of chief officers from the fire and law enforcement cojavascript:MMunities was created to oversee task force operations. This governing board approves the task force's operational protocols and assigns personnel to the group.

In developing the protocols, the program developers realized that a more aggressive investigative approach was needed during the suppression stage of a fire if the task force were to gather the information the state's attorney's office needed to prosecute arson cases successfully. It was important to get on the scene quickly and begin interviewing witnesses in the crowd.

"An early witness-driven interview process is very successful," Rogers says. The first investigators can be on the scene within an hour of notification and begin identifying and interviewing witnesses right away, while the information is still fresh in their minds.

The task force isn't called out for every fire, though task force members generally attend the more significant ones-in other words, the fires that are more difficult to solve. Even so, the task force solves 40 percent of its cases.

"'Solve' means someone was arrested and successfully prosecuted," Rogers says. This contrasts dramatically with national arson statistics, which indicate that only 2 percent of all arson fires and 6 percent of fires confirmed as incendiary by fire departments lead to arrest and conviction.

One reason for this success is the make-up of the task force, which includes not only members of the fire service and law enforcement cojavascript:MMunity, but representatives of other organizations with a vested interest in reducing the number of arson fires in DuPage County.

Representatives of the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a not-for-profit organization that serves as a central repository for information on insurance fraud, also participate. The NICB's current representative is Special Agent Dave Carli.

"We support the task force operations by retrieving information from our questionable claims database," Carli says. This database contains information supplied by NICB's 1,000 member insurance companies from across the country. Because Carli is part of the team, investigators can get access to this information while the investigators are on the scene of a fire that's just been suppressed. This has been a critical resource.

"If we had to run this through ATF sources, it could take weeks or months, perhaps, to gather the information," Gamboa says.

"Dave is able to look up information on the scene and give us a lot of intelligence information within minutes to an hour or two," says Rogers. "It saves a lot of legwork and steers us in the right direction."

Total participation

Because each agency participating in the task force is already paying for its investigators and detectives to work the fire scene, the task force costs the organizations nothing.

"Instead of two people taking 10 hours to work the fire scene," says Gamboa, "It might now take six people two hours. In addition, they can get an accelerant canine team, a forensic accountant, and other resources at no additional cost."

Every fire department and police department in DuPage County assigns personnel to the task force, and each agency absorbs its own overtime costs.

"If a town gives up one investigator, it knows it's going to get at least four others coming into town when it needs it, which helped justify the cost," Rogers says. Each department and investigator is also responsible for providing their own equipment.

In setting up the task force, it was important to assure each agency that the task force wouldn't take over a fire scene unless the agency requested it.

"The scene is still under the control of the original jurisdiction," Rogers says.

There are 12 four-person teams throughout the county, which has been divided into three sectors. Three teams, each composed of a team leader, two fire investigators, and two police officers, are on call for two weeks in a two-month cycle. When they're called to a scene, the team leader meets with the incident cojavascript:MMander to determine everyone's role in the investigation.

The effectiveness of task forces such as this has been demonstrated in other locations across the country. According to Guy Hujavascript:MMel, the division chief of arson and explosives for ATF, ATF is involved in formal task forces in 16 U.S. cities.

"From 1990 to 1997, ATF was involved in the prosecution of 3,974 defendants as a result of task force efforts," Hujavascript:MMel says. In fiscal year 1998, ATF initiated 245 arson cases and recojavascript:MMended 426 defendants for prosecution. In fact, task forces initiated 33 percent of ATF's arson criminal cases.

"What makes a task force successful is the 'grass-roots' efforts," Hujavascript:MMel says. "The local cojavascript:MMunity realizes the need and approaches the local ATF agency. It's not something that's driven out of Washington."

In DuPage County, the task force has been activated 28 times since August 9, 1999. Twelve, or 43 percent, of these fires were determined to have been arson. Eight arrests have been made, and two more are pending.

While these statistics are encouraging, Rogers and Gamboa feel it's too early to gauge the impact of the task force on arson in DuPage County, in part because they believe arson fires are under-reported. To remedy this situation, the Task Force Governing Board recojavascript:MMends that every police and fire department in the county report its statistics directly to the task force using the Fire Explosion Investigation Management System (FEIMS) being developed by ATF and USFA. The Board hopes that this system will allow investigators to develop a more accurate picture of fires and arson in the county.

One of the best indicators of the DuPage County task force's success is the fact that adjoining Kane County has announced that it will soon form its own task force, modeled on DuPage's operations. Because of DuPage's experience, the Kane County task force will be operational within six months of inception instead of the two years it took to bring everyone together in DuPage.

Thanks to the DuPage County task force-and those who had the vision to make it became a reality-arson prosecutions in Illinois have begun to keep pace with the incidence of arson throughout the state.

Sidebar

Incendiary and suspicious motives remain the number one cause of property damage due to fire in the United States. In 1998 alone, incendiary and suspicious fires did $1.249 billion in direct property damage to structures and vehicles, and this figure was 5 percent lower than the 1997 figure. When outdoor fires and a proportional share of fires with unknown causes are added, losses to arson or suspected arson typically total $2 billion in a typical year, or roughly one of every four dollars lost to fire.

By combining NFPA's analysis of fire causes with a series of special studies undertaken by the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ), it's possible to estimate that only 2 percent of intentionally set fires lead to convictions. DoJ studies also suggest that most of those convicted of arson are sentenced to less than two years in jail and that about a third of those convicted receive no jail time at all. Once released, more than half who were imprisoned will be rearrested, though not necessarily for arson, within three years. In 1998, for the fourth straight year, juvenile firesetters accounted for 52 percent of those arrested for arson.

DuPage County at a Glance
Area: 336 square miles (870 square kilometers)
Population: Approximately 1 million
Number of municipalities: 39
Total reported fires in 1999: 2,826
Incendiary fires in 1999: 250
Suspicious or undetermined
fires in 1999: 199
Accidental fires in 1999: 593
Total dollar loss in 1999: $12,608,691



 
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