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

By Victoria IrwinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 30, 1983



Brooklyn, N.Y.

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.

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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.

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.