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What do you Know About Arson?

The U.S. Fire Administration reports the conviction rate of arson in America is less than five percent.

National Arson Awareness Week is May 4 through 10. The theme this year focuses on novelty lighters and the dangers associated with children playing with them as toys. Too many times fire investigators across the country see the devastation that occurs when a child discovers what looks like a toy and uses it to accidentally set a fire to nearby combustibles.

The theme also focuses on the intentionally set fires that juveniles light using "a cool" looking lighter. Information on this topic can be located on the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) website.

As you speak to residents of your community about arson you may be surprised as to how little they know about the subject. In 2007, the arson awareness committee of the Minnesota Chapter of the International Association of Arson Investigators (MNIAAI) conducted the first known study in the country as to what people know about arson. The study was managed by Professor Angie Carlson PhD, of the University of Minnesota and the MNIAAI.

The concept was to find out what the public knew about the arson problem and if they felt arson was considered a property damage issue or a crime against people. The survey took place on Fire Prevention Day at the Minnesota State Fair. Approximately 120,000 people attended the fair that day and the MNIAAI booth was busy with 997 adults taking the survey. Surveys were conducted for juveniles and children as well. The survey results can be located on the MNIAAI website, at the link below.

The results of the survey showed a majority of the adults who took the survey knew what arson was and they believed that arson was both a property crime as well as a crime against people. The majority also believed that those who committed arson should be punished by serving jail time. My question then is; why aren't they? The USFA reports the conviction rate of arson in America is less than five percent! You can do the math on what the chances are of not being convicted and can see the real issue here. How do you deter arson with those figures? Every firefighter in the country should be concerned about this and until we all become concerned this number will not change.

For years, fire and police officials have increased their knowledge on how to properly determine the origin and cause of a fire. They practice collecting evidence and preparing detailed reports only to have little effect on the conviction rate of arson. This is a common theme across the country. Unless you have established a team concept within your jurisdiction, the chances of deterring the violent crime are slim.

Take a look at the Anoka County Fire Investigation Team in Minnesota. Their team started with seven fire officials and now has 33 investigators consisting of police, fire, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), the State Fire Marshal's Office, the Sheriff's Criminal Division and even a Prosecuting Attorney assigned to the team. Talk about team work. Their conviction rate over the past four years is over 85 percent. Not because they are lucky but, because they are all on a mission of deterring the crime of arson. The fire official understands fire, police understand crime, and the prosecutor trains and prepares the team to collect the best data possible. When they get good data they are well prepared to win the case. There are many teams around the country that are working well with one another in order to fight arson. And it is working.

One of the shocking statistics discovered in the survey taken at the Minnesota State Fair was what the public felt was the leading cause of all fires within their state. Each year the Minnesota State Fire Marshal's Office prepares an excellent report on the fire problem within their state. The data for this report comes from response information collected by 757 reporting fire departments within the state.

According to the 2006 data, "cooking fires" was the leading cause of all residential fires with arson as the second leading cause. The survey asked adults what the leading cause of all fires within the state was and they reported that "cigarettes" was the leading cause, "arson" was second, and "electrical" was third followed by "cooking" in last place. This showed that years of fire prevention efforts to increase knowledge of cooking fires have not been successful. This again increases the need for frequent and consistent fire prevention messages to our public.

When you speak to the citizens of your community this year, let them know that the fire investigation is where majority of the information on our fire problem comes from. If a proper fire investigation is conducted and the findings are reported completely, you will be able to see the fire problem within your area and in the U.S.A. Also let them know that arson is one of the leading causes of all fires in residential occupancies and the leading cause of commercial property fires according to the USFA. But more importantly, let them know that arson is a concern for your fire department and that it is a great risk to the community.

We can make a difference if the fire service joins together to fight one of the biggest battles we have.

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JERRY STREICH is a 20-year fire service veteran and currently serves as Assistant Chief/Fire Marshal in Minnesota. Jerry is a Certified Fire Investigator and experience and diverse training from the National Fire Academy, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and the Division of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Streich is a Director for the Minnesota Chapter IAAI and Chairman of the Arson Awareness Committee. To read Jerry's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. You can reach Jerry by e-mail at jerry@stoparson.com.

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