Arson Awareness Week

Joint Fire/Police Teams and Arson Task Forces Next: ATF Criminal & Geographic Profiling Program »

This page may contain links to non-U.S. government websites. What this means to you »

Investigations related to serial arsonists are typically very challenging and labor-intensive events to investigate. Serial arsonists are often not apprehended until they have caused tremendous devastation, unrest, and fear within a community. It is unrealistic to think that any one person or agency will possess all of the requisite knowledge, experience, skills, training, and expertise necessary to effectively investigate these types of cases. Therefore, whenever possible, a task force or team approach should be used that employs effective criminal investigative techniques.

Steps in Planning a Single Jurisdiction's Arson Task Force

Traditionally, the most effective arson prevention and control strategies have been based on using a team or task force approach that leverages the resources of the fire service, law enforcement, the insurance industry, and the community. There are several important steps that organizations should follow in establishing and maintaining arson task forces and joint fire/police teams to successfully investigate, solve, and prosecute serial arson cases. They include the following:


1. Identify Problems

This should include but not necessarily be limited to consideration of the following:

2. Confer with Counterparts in Other Agencies

Fire service executives should meet with their law enforcement counterparts (or vice versa) to discuss problems identified in step one and potential applicability of the strike force option. Law enforcement officials may be aware of other instances in which the strike force concept has proved effective in dealing with homicide, narcotics, or organized crime activity. This may predispose them to the benefits of the concept when applied to arson investigation.

3. Seek Prosecutor's Advice and Participation

Ultimately, the success or failure of the strike force approach will depend on the involvement of prosecutors. Therefore, the District Attorney or State's Attorney should be consulted as early as is practical in the development of a strike force. The prosecutor's support for and input to the strike force formation will ease its development. Specific understandings should be sought from the outset on the strike force's role, composition, and procedures, and the role of the prosecuting attorney's staff in the strike force. Working out these understandings in advance will later aid cases that the force develops to be effectively prosecuted. And convictions, not just clearances, are the hallmark of successful arson strike forces.

4. Develop Justification

Justification for the strike force approach is likely to come from:

Justification might include noting that the strike force constitutes a standing reserve of investigative capability at little additional cost. This would be an especially potent argument in favor of a strike force if the problem identification phase shows that shortages of personnel and resources have seriously hindered previous investigations of major and/or serial fires. If appropriate, point out the prudence of establishing the strike force before a major arson requires establishing it on a crash basis.

5. Design Organizational Structure

Designing a general structure for the strike force will require at least three steps. These are:

  1. identifying participating agencies and their roles
  2. identifying applicable external resources (e.g.: state investigative agencies, Internal Revenue Service, postal inspectors, sources of heavy equipment, etc.)
  3. defining the incident command system to be followed

6. Evaluate Expense Requirements

Strike force activities should not require significant increases in expenditures because they rely primarily on the use of existing resources. Typically, participating agencies will cover the costs of their personnel and resources supplied to the strike force. There will, however, be some costs that cannot be handled in this way. Principles for sharing these costs will have to be developed. They should be simple and fair, and agreeable to all participating agencies.

Some agreements stipulate a time limit for no-cost investigative assistance. For example, the Sierra Front Interagency Investigation Association provides that the first 48 hours following assignment will beat no cost to the requesting agency. Time over that amount are subject to reimbursement decisions on a case-by-case basis.

7. Seek Agency Endorsements

Participating agencies should formally endorse the planned strike force and state their commitment to its support.

8. Seek Policy Makers' Authorization

Interagency strike force arrangements in single jurisdictions may require authorization from elected and appointed policy makers before a formal organization can be developed.

9. Complete Organizational Planning

Once policy makers give the green light, the next step is to complete the detailed planning for how the strike force will be organized and managed.