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Arson Investigations: Apathy vs. Understanding


R. Kirk Hankins

Hankins, R. Kirk. Arson investigations: apathy vs understanding.
Fire and Arson Investigator. Vol 48 No 2 (December 1997). p 24-25.

Fire investigators all too well understand the road blocks in conducting fire investigations and successfully prosecuting the offenders. An unending litany of these road blocks can be heard from any number of investigators. The purpose of the I.A.A.I. and similar organizations is to dismantle some, if not all of those obstacles.

Unfortunately, one major obstacle is most often due to our own investigative agencies. In too many police departments, having a qualified fire investigator on staff is more often the exception rather than the norm. Departments will typically send patrol officers, detectives and evidence technicians to bank robberies where the total take from one teller drawer may be less than $20,000. Numerous investigative and follow up hours are conducted without a second thought.

In residential or commercial incendiary fires, however, the same departments may be totally apathetic. The fire may not even rate a response from a police investigative unit. Patrol officers will respond to assist with traffic and crowd control and most likely be mandated to write "the police report" in cases of criminal fires. Usually that report parrots what the fire department officials tell the officer. That report very seldom reaches the investigative unit.

Fatality fires and those resulting in mass media coverage, will normally rate a full scale investigative blitz by public safety agencies. While we can all agree that fatal fires deserve this increased response, should we not be applying the same efforts toward all fires?

In a typical year, arson fires account for an estimated $2 billion in damages and more than 700 deaths. There is no disputing that arson is one of the most costly crime that plagues our country.

In some cases fire departments reason that since arson is a crime, the proper venue for investigation is the police. Police may argue that fire officials are the responsible agency. We can all agree that in the instance of arson, specific knowledge is required which encompasses both police and fire disciplines.

To enhance the understanding of the incendiary fire problem, the establishment of the "Task Force" concept can address that need. Fire and police investigators working in concert, both at the scene and during subsequent investigations, increases the knowledge of both. This approach will also improve the probability of identifying the responsible parties.

The task force concept is most often opposed due to the inference that it is a large scale operation. This does not need to be the case. The task force may be composed of a minimum of two investigators. For larger fires or multiple events, i.e., serial arsons, the staffing can be increased to meet the need.

The success of the task force concept is well know. The U.S. Justice and Treasury Departments established the Church Arson Task Force in the spring of 1996 to address those fires. According to media reports, 199 suspects were arrested in connection with 150 investigations. Their reported 35 percent arrest rate was more than double the 16 percent general arson arrest rate. In addition, 110 of the defendants were successfully convicted. Similar results have been achieved by municipal and state task forces working on a variety of criminal issues in addition to arsons. The task force concept can be effective in dismantling jurisdictional questions concerning fire investigations.

Assistance from two other sources can also be utilized. Prosecutors and insurance representatives should be included in your public safety community response to these fires. Many task forces include them in their organization or at the very least, request consultation during the investigation. They are a valuable source of information. A successful prosecution mandates their inclusion.

Prosecutors can review reports for additional investigation, analyze evidence, interpret arson immunity statutes and assist in directing the investigation to meet prosecutorial requirements. Insurance representatives can assist in logistical matters, provide documentation from the application, examination under oath, financial statements and their own investigative reports. (Careful consideration should be given to the pertinent arson immunity statute when requesting or utilizing the above information.)

A method of visualizing this approach is to think of the fire tetrahedron. Each leg of the tetrahedron is represented by fire, police, prosecutor and insurance representatives. If one leg is removed, the entire investigation may collapse.

It is incumbent upon fire investigators to foster an understanding of arson investigations to overcome apathy. Utilizing the task force concept is but only one of many approaches available. We must continue our efforts to educate our community, co-workers and administrators. Arson awareness week objectives should foster year long efforts on our part.

Knowledge is power. Knowledge not used is wasted.

About the Author

Mr. Hankins is the Regional Manager and a Special Investigator with Consolidated Forensic Investigations, Inc., which was founded in 1996. Prior to that he was the Regional Director for Independent Insurance Investigations, Inc. He has conducted numerous fire and insurance loss investigations for various insurance carriers and attorneys. Mr. Hankins has been qualified as an "expert" in fire and explosive investigations in Missouri.

Mr. Hankins is a former Boone County Sheriffs Deputy and currently a Police Officer for the Columbia, Missouri Police Department. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri Law Enforcement Training Academy. He has worked in both the Patrol and Investigative Divisions of his Department and has been a career Police Officer for 15 years, with over 2900 hours of training.

He is the primary Fire Investigator for the Columbia Police Department and is responsible for all explosive related incidents and post blast investigations. He is a member of the Boone County Fire Protection District where he also serves as the Bomb Technician. He serves as a Technical Search Specialist with Missouri Task Force One, Missouri's Urban Search and Rescue Team.

Mr. Hankins has a Bachelor Degree in Forest Management from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a Bachelor Degree in Administration of Justice from Columbia College, Columbia, Missouri.

He is both a Police and Fire Service Instructor teaching for the University of Missouri, Columbia Police and Fire Departments, Kansas City, Missouri Fire Department and others. He has addressed seminars for the Missouri Chapter of the International Association of Arson Investigators, the Kansas City Arson Task Force and others.

Mr. Hankins has been certified as a Fire Investigator by the Missouri Division of Fire Safety, the Professional Fire and Fraud Investigators Association of Missouri, the International Association of Arson Investigators, and the Missouri Chapter IAAI. He is also certified by the Missouri Division of Fire Safety as a Firefighter I.

He is a graduate of the F.B.I.-U.S. Army Ordnance "Hazardous Device School."

Mr. Hankins is a Director in the International Association of Arson Investigators, Past President of the Missouri Chapter IAAI, member of the Kansas Chapter IAAI, member of the Professional Fire and Fraud Investigators Association of Missouri, member of Mid-Missouri Major Case Squad and a member of the International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators.

Mr. Hankins has authored other articles for the "Fire & Arson Investigator."

Reprinted with permission.

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