Arson for profit; Preventing dollars from going up in smoke

By , Staff writer for The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

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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."

Massachusetts now has several such strike forces made up of state and local police, district attorneys, and even private detectives with expertise in arson investigation. Maj. John F. Reagan of the Massachusetts State Police says fire marshals in areas where the strike forces have been operating have reported drops in the arson rate of up to 50 percent. By the end of the year he hopes to have strike forces operating in every county.

Mr. Anderson says the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms also offers a five-day course on prevention and detection of arson for profit, and FBI regional offices run seminars related to specific local problems on arson.

Another key program is the establishment of information management systems to collect and analyze data on arson fires and predict where they are likely to occur.

One program, the Arson Warning and Prevention Strategy in Hartford, Conn., started in January. It was set up after a grand jury investigation of the many fires that beset the city during the mid-70s.

"The grand jury report was pretty damaging to the fire department," says Doss Sauertieg, who helped develop the program. "Basically it said, 'You're not doing your job, you're not investigating fires that should be investigated, and you're not using your data correctly.If you used what you already have in a better way you could look at patterns of fires. . . .'"

She says a study of 100 buildings that had fires and 100 similar buildings that did not showed four major differences.

"The group that had fires had more taxes owed on them, had a history of liens and attachments on the properties, had had small structural fireS, and had unabated housing code violations on them, all in bigger numbers than the other group. So we took those four variables, and whenever we came up with a building that had all four things occurring, we put it on a list as being most at risk to arson.

"We can't go to the owner and say, 'We think you may try to burn your building down,'" Ms. Sauertieg says. "It's a very sensitive issue. But what we can do is ofer him a lot of alternatives and tell him about the program."

Eleven buildings in Hartford were pinpointed and a prevention strategy designed for each one. Some buildings were torn down, one was rehabilitated by the city's Office of Neighborhood Preservation. Another was sold to a new owner with the help of the fire department. Only one of the 11 buildigns has burned.

Dallas has had an arson squad since the early 1920s. But two years ago a program with the eye-catching title "Burn an Arsonist for Cold Cash" was started by the Independent Insurance Agents of Dallas to reward informants for tips on arson. Its success, says Chief J. E. Tuma of the Dallas Fire Department's Arson Bureau, is due primarily to a concurrent all-out "Arson Awareness" campaign.

"We've had billboards, signs on buses, statement stuffers. Grocery stores have put leaflets in the grocery bags, and there has been a lot of news media coverage about the problem ans what people can do to help us solve it."

He says the program's first year showed "a significant reduction" of incendiary strurcture fires -- 24 percent. The total of all fires was also down 14 percent, and he credits this simply to public awareness of the fire problem. Another result of the program: The number of people charged with arson increased by 65 percent.

In California, a program called "WE TIP" has led to the arrest of 45 people on arson charges and conviction of 25 of them in two years. It has worked so well that it may be expanded nationwide in August.

"WE TIP started eight years ago to combat drug traffic,c says its director, Bill Brownell. "Later, we expanded our operations to all major crimes. Two years ago the fire chief in Riverside wanted to know if we could give them a hand to help abate the arson problem there, and our board of directors told us to go ahead."

People with information about arson fires can call a toll-free number. The first thing they hear is "This is the TIP line. Please do not give your name. Do not identify yourself." They are then asked a series of questions about the arson they are reporting, with the final question being, "Are you interested in a reward?"

"At first 830 percent of the callers called because there was a reward," Mr. Brownell says. "That percentage is now down to 30 percent, which indicates that mroe citizens are concerned about the quality of life in the community and less intrested in a reward."

Information is immediately forwarded to the arson investigators.The informants are also urged to contact the authorities, but most do not -- preferring WE TIP's offer of total anonymity.

"The biggest problem in arson, or in any other crime, is the witnesses' fear of reprisal by the guilty parties," Mr. Brownell says.

He points out that the program is truly a communitywide effort. Its advisory board includes fire chiefs, arson investigators, insurance representatives, a postal inspector, and business people. Money comes from individuals, service organizations, and municipalities supporting WE TIP as an aid to law enforcement.

In the New York borough of Queens, residents are increasingly worried about the arson rate, which has increased 64 percent since 1974.

"It's probably because we're the only borough that has a lot of structures left to burn," says the Rev. Dwayne Mau of the Queens Citizens Council. "In the other boroughs they've all been pretty much eliminated."

Involved with all the problems of the community, the 3 1/2-year-old ecumenical group representing 27 church parishes with 55,000 families has focused on arson prevention since July 1979.

"We see what has happened in other areas," says Pat Troll. "We don't want to go the way of Brooklyn or south Bronx [where 30,000 buildings have burned over the past 10 years]. Many of the people who now live in Queens came from there. . . . You can just run so far. Where do you go to live after a while?"

Most of the group's demands are specific: resumption of arson surveillance patrols, full staffing of the Queens Fire Department (of the 72 undermanned firehouses in New York City, 34 are in Queens), lab equipment and technology for arson investigators, ironing out of jurisdictional disputes over arson investigation, and stiffer sentences for convicted arsonists.

There are already some successes. The fire department now sends three fire trucks instead of two to areas with chronically low water pressure. Also, the council now has direct access to the Bureau of Housing and Preservation, which seals up abandoned buildings about to be demolished or tries to find contractors to rehabilitate them. In addition, the police department, fire department, and district attorney's office, which once worked separately on arson, now meet weekly to share information.

The council has also persuaded local officials to sign pledges to improve conditions -- not to trap them, but to make them accountable.

"They know their answers are recorded, and they're specific," says the Rev. Mr. Mau. "They have timetables and specific tasks to do."

But he says one of the greatest accomplishments has been raising the awareness of the problem without making people panic.

"Everybody says that if you speak of arson, people immediately want to flee. But we've dealt with it more in the line of prevention. We've really raised peoplehs consciousness that arson is an issue that has to be faced -- it won't go away just because you don't say it."

Presenting the report of the Massachusetts Arson Task Force to an arson control conference in Boston, Lt. Gov. Thomas P. O'Neill III echoed similar sentiments. Arson, he said, is "one of the most dangerous problems our society has to deal with, and one that really wreaks havoc on the economic scene."

The purpose of the report, he continued, is to "draw a picture that's not so bleak that it shows the arsonist has a greater future . . . and not so rosy that we tell you we're going to wipe out arson for profit in our lifetime. But at least we're going to try to put together a program that impedes arson for profit. We're going to try to create as many roadblocks as we can."

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