Arson Awareness Week

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Tampa Fire Department—Florida

Tampa Fire/Rescue

Investigators believe some fires were set as insurance scams – six of the properties were purchased at inflated prices. Photo from Tampa Fire/Rescue

A series of approximately 30 arson-related fires that plagued Tampa, FL, for more than a year recently prompted city officials to overhaul how the city investigates fires. Earlier this year, the Tampa Fire Department's three fire/arson investigators and their supervisor were moved to Tampa police headquarters to work alongside police detectives. A training program was also implemented aimed at training police investigators in determining the origin and cause of fires and training fire/arson investigators in various criminal investigative techniques. According to Tampa's fire chief, moving fire/arson investigators to police headquarters created a more robust and aggressive team. Moreover, assigning fire/arson investigators to partner with police detectives also provides access to a wealth of resources such as technical surveillance equipment, forensic evidence support, and intelligence sources that often prove instrumental in successfully solving arson and bombing cases.

Shortly after joining forces, the newly formed team of fire and police personnel made an arrest in connection with one of the fires; however, the suspect is thought to be responsible for multiple fires. Since the arrest, the city has not experienced any major fires in the neighborhood that, up to that point, was experiencing several fires a month.

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Chester County Arson Task Force—Coatesville, PA

In 2008 and 2009, a string of approximately 65 fires believed to be the work of a serial arsonist or arsonists ravaged the community of Coatesville, PA; a town of approximately 10,000 residents, located approximately 35 miles west of Philadelphia. Shortly after the fires began, a state of emergency was declared that gave the city powers to board up buildings, assign police officers to protect structures, provide help to affected families and remove items that they deemed dangerous from properties, and to immediately purchase safety equipment without budgetary concerns. In addition, a multijurisdictional arson task force comprised of agents from the ATF, the FBI, the Coatesville Police Department, Pennsylvania State Police, and Chester County Police Department detectives was organized.

The majority of the fires were set at night, often fueled by furniture or trash located on porches. At first, vacant homes on the city's west side were targeted, but the arsons eventually migrated to occupied homes causing millions of dollars in property damage and fear and unrest throughout the community. In a proactive effort to calm fears and to limit the potential for homes to be easy targets, the city asked residents to clean off their porches, turn on outside lights, refrain from putting their trash out until morning, and they supplied smoke detectors to residents. Police also initiated special nighttime patrols and urged residents to immediately report any type of suspicious activities.

The Chester County Arson Task Force launched an intensive, around-the-clock investigation that eventually led to the arrests of several individuals responsible for the majority of the fires. The motives for the firesetting activities were not firmly established, but investigators believe the reasons ranged from excitement to vandalism. The success of the investigative efforts that led to the arrests was based on an unmatched level of commitment on the part of the members of the task force to share resources and information.

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Portland Fire & Rescue—Oregon

Earlier this year, Portland Fire & Rescue responded to four suspicious car fires. This was in addition to two other car fires that were reported over the previous few days for a total of six car fires. Two fire investigators were patrolling the area of the fires as part of their investigation around midnight one evening. While driving down the street, the investigators smelled the odor of burning paper. Upon further investigation, and to their surprise, they discovered a fire inside a carport at a residence. The fire had originated in a recycle bin and was rapidly spreading into the ceiling and walls of the carport.

One of the investigators woke the sleeping family and assisted them to safely evacuate. The other investigator pulled the recycle bin outside and called for firefighting resources. Portland Police Bureau also responded with their canine units and set up a perimeter search of the area. Fire investigators arrested a suspect. He was charged with one count of arson and one count of reckless endangerment in connection with the fire. Fire investigators believe that the individual may have been connected with all six car fires, plus an additional six suspicious fires in the area for a total of 13 fires.

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