Bill “Firegeezer” Schumm speculated on the impact of reducing the number of investigators in his September 17th morning lineup:
Something I’ve been wondering about lately is whether the “shrinkage” of fire/rescue paid staff is maybe having an ancillary effect on fire investigations, which in turn is putting less pressure on demented arsonists. And is that leading to more repeat-arson activity because they have less fear of being caught?
We asked “George Wendt CFI” to consider the question. An experienced New Jersey based fire investigator, George was the first person to hit 10,000 posts on firehouse.com.
He is a core participant on the International Association of Crusty Old Jakes (IACOJ) forum. IACOJ is an international forum of articulate firefighters who are known for intelligent discussion of fire/rescue issues.
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George Wendt CFI
It took me awhile to post this because I was researching to see if I could find some numbers to back up the things I have noticed lately. I couldn’t because the powers that be do not track these numbers except for the obligatory mish-mash of skewed useless and baseless statistics.
So my post is based on my personal experiences and anecdotal information.
The Jersey City FD was awarded the IAAI Award of Merit for the Fire Investigative Unit of the Year in 2009. In 2008, one of their members was awarded the IAAI Investigator of the Year. In 2010, the Unit has been cut to the bone, with many of their members re-assigned to the line.
The Newark FD Arson Squad deals with arguably the toughest arson problem in the state of NJ. Early in 2010, they cut the unit from a 24/7 unit to basically a business hours only unit.
What happened? Arson went down! At least on paper. Was it a miracle? No. If a fire is not investigated properly, it stands to reason that the number of fires determined to be “undetermined” or “electrical” (another word for undetermined) go up. And that is exactly what is happening.
But, do you hear the uprising from the fire service about this problem? (Cue sound of crickets chirping…). Nope. Why? Because the fire service doesn’t care.
With a few pockets of exception, the culture of the US fire service supports fires…the more the better, the bigger the better. Proof? Aggressive comprehensive fire prevention would reduce the rate of fires almost across the board. Yet, fire prevention bureaus are a place to assign problems or old guys. It’s not a career path or a prestigious position. After all, if he was a REAL fire fighter, he would be fighting fires. Aggressive investigation of fires would put people in jail for arson and would serve as a deterrent. But in areas that need it most, fire investigation units are cut or reduced to the bone (see above).
Most statistics support that approx. 45-50% of all arson fires are set by juveniles. So it stands to reason that intervention with juveniles involved in fire setting behavior would reduce the number of fires, right? After all, there are dozens of industry reports and studies that support that fact. But in most areas, juvenile firesetter intervention is relegated to the back room of the fire house where kids look at photos of burn victims and then wash the fire truck, promising never to set a fire again. (sigh) Proof? In 2009, the FDNY BFI conducted 93 juvenile fire setter interventions. 93. Out of over 8 million people, 93.
I have sat across the table from fire fighters from urban fire departments who have looked me in the eye and told me they are against residential sprinklers because they will reduce the amount of work they get and their guys won’t be as adept at fighting fires if the workload is reduced. I have sat across the table from volunteer fire fighters who tell me that they are against residential sprinklers because they will reduce fires and that will have a negative effect on recruitment and retention. After all, fire fighters join the FD to fight fires, right?
But the quintessential fact that proves the US fire service is complicit in the reduction of fire investigation resources is the appalling number of arsons committed by fire fighters. Mostly volunteer fire fighters. I am very experienced in the investigation of fires by fire fighters. In almost every case that I have dealt with, the FD had an inkling that one or more of their members were involved in this activity, but didn’t do anything. Most also enjoy the work and enjoy the attention. Most would rather have bodies on the roster than commit resources to background checks. Psychological checks? Don’t make me laugh. Those types of things may discourage folks from applying.
But there is another interesting fact about fire investigation today. Insurance companies are devoting more resources to fire investigations than ever before. One major insurance company employs over 30 full-time certified fire investigators and a full-time forensics lab to work major fire losses. Two other major insurance companies are starting the same type of program. Another major insurance carrier spent a year evaluating the fire investigators on their vendor list to make sure they were certified and conducted their investigations in accordance with NFPA 921. Most certified fire investigators working in the private sector today have more work than they can handle.
Anecdotally, arson is up across the board. But there is a misconception among a lot of people is that the arson problem only involves people looking to commit insurance fraud because of financial stress. It is true that there is an increase in fraud fires, but they are hardly the only problem out there. Revenge fires still lead the way. But by far, fire investigation to support subrogation* action is by far the most active and most lucrative segment of fire investigation taking place today.
Do you ever read the recall notices from the Consumer Product Safety Commission? Many are issued each day. An alarming number are fire-related. Virtually all fire-related recalls were the result of fire investigations. Removing unsafe products from the market will save lives. But, dang-it, that will also reduce the number of fires we get. That could probably be the explanation for why the referral of product-related fire cases to the CPSC by FD’s is almost non-existent.
I would love the have someone post on here and prove me wrong. But sadly, you can’t.
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*Subrogation refers to circumstances in which an insurance company tries to recoup expenses for a claim it paid out when another party should have been responsible for paying at least a portion of that claim.
Wonder what happens if the insurance investigation points to negligent or improper fire department activities that amplified the loss?
Fellow IACOJers responded to this post, we will provide some of those responses later this week.
Mike “FossilMedic” Ward