Brooklyn neighborhoods enlist tenants - and computers - to help fight arson

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In a storefront office in Brooklyn's Flatbush section, there is a computer system that may save the lives and homes of area residents from deliberately set fires.

And over in Brooklyn's North Greenpoint/Williamsburg area, a civic group with a radical name - The People's Firehouse - is also using high technology to break arson trends.

This organization and the Flatbush Development Corporation Arson Prevention Program don't want to see their neighborhoods go up in flames.

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By collecting arson-prediction data - building location, vacancy rates, deliquent tax payments, building code violations, fire history - and entering it in their computer systems, the anti-arson organizations can target buildings with a high risk of arson.

Ideally, the tenants then can organize to safeguard their building. Fire marshals can inspect the property and contact the building owner. Insurers can make use of specific and up-to-date information on the property. Or, if the building is already too far gone, it can be ''sealed'' with cement and mortar to prevent further fires.

On 22nd Street in Flatbush, the sidewalk in front of a dilapidated apartment building is covered with empty bottles and litter. In the midst of the rubbish is a charred door, apparently tossed down to street level from several stories up. As in a ghost town, a broken window frame thunks softly in the wind, but there are curtains covering several other windows.

Ronald Hine, director of the Flatbush arson-prevention project, doubts anyone - even squatters - lives in the building during the cold weather that has descended with winter. Around the corner at the building's front entrance, blue-gray sky is visible through broken windows and the burned-out hole in the roof.

Just across the street is a well-kept apartment building with workers out front. New, insulated windows have been installed.

''That is a tenant-cooperative,'' Mr. Hine points out. And it is exactly the answer he likes to see in Flatbush. The tenants organized to get a loan subsidized by the city and began to rehabilitate the building. In five years' time, they will own the property.

The sad piece of property across the street, which once held 39 apartments, has been the victim of 10 suspicious fires since 1980. But it is unlikely that the tenant-cooperative will meet the same fate.

''I literally watched Bushwick burn down,'' Hine says, referring to the Brooklyn area that suffered tremendous fire losses in the mid-'70s. Can an arson early-warning system save this neighborhood?

Yes, say arson prevention experts. But it takes more than merely pinpointing trouble spots.

''Arson is a housing problem,'' says Fred Ringler, administrator of the People's Firehouse. Essential to arson prevention, most experts assert, are strong tenant organizions and housing management programs. Both Hine and Mr. Ringler are focusing on ''arson for profit'' more than on vandalism, pyromania, or fires set for revenge.

A cycle of ''disinvestment'' begins when some landlords start to fall behind in tax and mortgage payments. Repairs are left undone. City building-code violations begin to pile up. It becomes more profitable for some landlords to simply collect the rents, disregarding upkeep and taxes. Eventually, if and when the building is burned, they may be able to collect insurance money.

Such cycles can be broken. The number of arson incidents is down in New York City. There has been a 27 percent reduction in the past three years, according to Mayor Edward I. Koch's office. And nationwide, arson decreased 12 percent in 1981-82. Structural arson, which means buildings, was down 5 percent, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Last year, arson losses in the US totaled more than $840 million.

New York City has initiated successful efforts in the past few years. The fire department's Red Caps program, where groups of 50 fire marshals investigate arson-plagued communities, has helped to cut arson rates in several areas, including Williamsburg. The marshals are often asked to stay in a neighborhood beyond the planned three months.

A new Red Caps program is about to begin in the northwest corner of the Bronx , in an area where arson has not been widespread. But Fire Department Commission John Mulligan says the idea is to deter would-be arsonists.

''What the British call showing the flag,'' he says.

Community organizations point to several obstacles that they say stand in the way of quick success for their arson-prevention programs.

At the top of the list is lack of funding. Both the People's Firehouse and FDC Arson Prevention Project are receiving funds from the Ford Foundation. And such groups learn how to scrape up small grants from government and private foundations. But money from the federal government has been curtailed and these groups feel the pinch.

There have been some moves in Congress to increase funding for community-based projects through the United States Fire Administration, says Ernest Garneau of Urban Educational Systems (UES) in Boston, which holds workshops nationwide on arson prevention.

Another bone of contention is participation by the insurance industry. Though insurers are involved in finding ways to reduce arson fraud, many of the small organizations say that the insurance industry drags its feet when it comes to financial help and cooperation.

''In general, the insurance industry has not done much,'' says Mr. Garneau. He says there are some exceptions, but when there is such a direct link between the insurance business and the money companies have to pay out in claims, there should be more cooperation.

''There is a strong feeling that the insurance industry is not doing what it should,'' says another arson-prevention expert, who adds the industry is most active in financing traditional arson-prevention projects, such as state task forces. ''They are not reaching out to every possible alternative.''

Part of the reason may be that the industry would rather work on a large-scale basis, this observer adds, such as the program the Insurance Committee for Arson Control is sponsoring with the Ford Foundation. The project will target pilot cities to develop a generic method for examining arson data.

Arrests and prosecution of arsonists are other areas that prevention experts would like to see expanded. Claire Slack of UES sees an all-out effort to prosecute arson suspects. Sometimes it is more effective to bring cases through federal courts, she says. For example, if a landlord collects insurance money through the US mail, there may be a way to convict him or her of federal mail fraud.

And at the community level, groups are keeping an eye on landlords with a bad fire history.

The detailed information that quietly whirs off the computer printer in Ron Hine's cramped quarters in Flatbush gives a breadth of information on a single piece of property: the value of the land, the number of real estate transactions , the number of months the owner is in arrears on taxes. Most is the fire history, complete with dates, times, causes, and the number of people injured.

Such information can be useful as corroborative evidence in a trial, say community organizers. And that is what they are after.

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