Arson for profit; Preventing dollars from going up in smoke
Hedy Byrd was asleep in her New York City apartment one morning when she woke to the sound of breaking glass. "I jumped out of bed and ran to the window," she testified at a Senate investigating committee on arson. "I saw flames shooting up from the lower floors past my fourth-floor window. I ran into my children's bedroom and woke up my five-year old daughter, Regina, and my three-year old son, Eric. I grabbed Terrance, my nine-month-old baby, tucked him under my arm, and began leading Regina and Eric out of the apartment.Skip to next paragraph
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"I had to push [them] up the stairs because everyone in the building was struggling to get to the roof. There was panic on the stairway as it started to burn. . . ."
Fortunately, Mrs. Byrd and her family came through unscathed. But that fire was one of the nearly 500 arson or suspected arson fires that occur every 24 hours in the United States.
In 1978, the last year for which figures are available, 1,070 fatalities were attributed to arson. The estimated monetary loss was $3 billion, but the inderect cost is closer to $10 billion, says Bruce Bogart of the American Insurance Association. In Sheldon, Conn., for example, the burning of a sponge rubber factory eliminated 617 jobs, with many of the workers ending up on welfare.
According to association figures, arson is increasing by 20 to 25 percent a year. Mr. Bogart admits that part of the statistical increase may actually be due to better detection methods. But he says most cases are for profit or to relieve economic burdens -- and years of recession traditionally show the greatest leaps in arson fires.
One reason for the large number of deliberately set fires is that arson is a fairly low-risk crime. A Massachusetts Arson Task Force report disclosed that the state has had a conviction rate of less than 3 percent during the last five years. The reasons, according to the study, are lack of training in arson investigation, insufficient personnel and laboratory facilities, lack of clear lines of responsibility for arson investigation, and ambivalent court attitudes toward the crime.
A major problem has been the lack of coordinated effort by the agencies responsible and occasional interdepartmental rivalries. But this is slowly changing, both locally and nationally.
In 1979 Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio introduced a bill proposing a federal interagency commission on arson. According to Senator Glenn's office, there is a fairly good chance that the bill will be passed during this session of Congress.
"There are about 15 federal agencies that have some sort of anti-arson responsibility, with a lot of duplication," says Harold Brazil, a legislative aide to Senator Glenn. "This bill is primarily designed to coordinate all these programs so we can get a systematic attack on the arson problem."
It would also permanently classify arson as a "Part 1" (major) crime in the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Report, focusing national attention on the problem and enabling the collection of more accurate statistics.
The US Fire Administration (USFA) of the Federal Emergency Management Agency is stepping up its anti-arson activity. Its resource center publishes bulletins , directories, and handbooks on community strategies to fight arson. It also provides courses in arson detection and fire investigation for fire departments and prosecutors. It even has anti-arson curriculum units for school systems and counseling programs for juveniles who set fires.
With financial aid from the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, it is holding regional workshops on developing state and local arson task forces. These task forces are policy-setting bodies made up of city administrators, police and fire department representatives, prosecutors, and -- in many instances -- local businessmen and concerned citizens.
"Their purpose is to determine what the arson problems are and the resources available," says Phineas Anderson of the USFA. "They then come up with a plan as to how to tackle the problem. It may include an arson squad or strike force -- teams of detectives from police, assigned to fires and going out and investigating."