Last week was Arson Awareness Week. Arson is defined as “the criminal act of deliberately setting fire to property.” It is a problem not only for the fire service, but for a community. Fires caused by an arsonist could cause the death of a firefighter or a civilian. Until the arsonist is caught, the costs for arson has to be absorbed by the particular jurisdiction. Arson takes place for many reasons:
- A pyromaniac is a person who has “an obsessive desire to set fire to things.”
- A juvenile fire setter is a child, up to the age of 17, who sets fires. For the child, it starts with curiosity, but the motivation escalates unless intervention occurs.
- Arson can be used to hide other crimes, like burglary or murder.
- Arson can be used to do harm to firefighters and other public safety workers
- Unfortunately, a few “firefighters” resort to arson, to overcome boredom, make a statement, or appear to be the hero.
- There are other reasons that arsonists set fires, but I think that you get the point.
Arson is a problem that needs to be determined and stopped as quickly as possible. This is why determining the cause of every fire is important. All firefighters are trained in basic origin and cause determination, but the real experts are the fire investigators. Once assigned to, in Chesterfield’s case, the Fire and Life Safety division, fire service personnel are trained in advance levels of investigation. Reconstructing an area of a building where a fire has occurred is a time consuming and tedious job, but extremely necessary to determine the true cause of a fire. From time to time, an arsonist will cross jurisdictional lines, mandating the collaboration and cooperation of multiple departments.
There are telltale signs of a possible arson fire:
- Multiple fires started in a dwelling, with no connection between the fires.
- Multiple fires in abandoned structures.
- The use of accelerants by the arsonist, which has led to many departments acquiring accelerant-sniffing dogs
- Multiple holes cut in floors or walls to accelerate fire spread or meant to hurt firefighters.
- A common pattern of a slew of fires determined.
- Again, it goes back to the importance of determining the cause of every fire in a jurisdiction. Some arsonist will set one fire, but others will set multiple fires until caught.
How can you, the public, help in this? To start with, if you see or know something, you must say something to the proper authorities. There are times that an arsonist will hang around and watch all that occurs from his or her actions. There are other times when a person will be seen fleeing the scene just before authorities arrive. Again, if you see something, even if it is h seemingly unrelated, tell someone. If you arrived at a fire early on, you will have valuable information about the location of the fire in the earliest stages. Again, the role of a fire investigator is to rebuild the puzzle with many missing pieces at the beginning of an investigation.
Arson is a menacing problem, and the arsonist is a menace to any community. When the problem strikes,everyone in the community must be on watch. The motivation of the arsonist will determine whether this is a solitary incident or there will be many more fires. I dealt with arson fires during my career, and firefighters are dealing with arsonists today. Firefighters, with the help of the community, can determine that an arsonist has shown up, and can hopefully apprehend the arsonist before someone is injured or killed or property is destroyed. An arson fire has the potential of being more dangerous than usual. I have heard the statement, “an arsonist with a conscience.” In other words, an arsonist does something that could give the impression that he or she cares about life. The reality is that an arsonist has to be stopped as quickly as possible. Stay alert.