Arson in America

Despite the efforts of all those involved in fire prevention, education and law enforcement, arson continues to be a serious problem in the United States. It continues to be the number-one cause of fires across the nation, according to statistics gathered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and presented in its annual Uniform Crime Reports.

Photo by Ralph C. Huttick Jr.
Arson remains the leading cause of fires in the United States.

Among programs aimed at reducing arson incidents in the U.S. was the proclaiming of the week of May 3-9, 1998, as National Arson Awareness Week. "Target Arson - Don't Get Burned" was the slogan used in media and participatory events during the week.

The three major goals of National Arson Awareness Week were:

  1. To create a national recognition, awareness and understanding of the arson problem in the United States.
  2. To highlight accomplishments and successes of the four pilot communities that participated in the National Arson Prevention Initiative - Charlotte, NC; Macon, GA; Utica, NY; and Nashville, TN. Ten additional communities have since joined the program - Baltimore; Jacksonville, FL; Los Angeles; New Haven, CT; New Orleans, LA; New York City; Orlando, FL; Sacramento, CA; San Antonio; and Youngstown, OH. Also, officials in Utica, with the assistance of National Guard troops, demolished 100 vacant and arson-damaged buildings. Nearly 500 buildings were seized for back taxes.
  3. To promote the dissemination of arson awareness, prevention and investigation literature and training materials via the National Arson Prevention Clearinghouse.

The National Arson Prevention Initiative includes efforts such as:

  • Creating interagency task forces.
  • Demolishing vacant and abandoned structures.
  • Implementing stricter code enforcement efforts.
  • Developing a juvenile firesetter program.
  • Involve the community through "crime stopper" programs.
  • Community education.
  • Conduct threat assessments of vulnerable properties.

Collection Of Data

Arson data compiled by the FBI and other agencies, such as the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the U.S. Fire Admini-stration (USFA), must be used cautiously as it does not represent the total arson experience. This is due to incomplete data or no data being reported by law enforcement agencies. For example, only 42 states participate in the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS), a data-collecting program, and not every fire department in the participating states is involved. In fact, until there is complete participation from every police and fire department in the country we cannot have a true picture of the arson problem.

The latest available data from the Uniform Crime Reports show a continuing decline in arson fires. But even though the numbers look encouraging, the data for 1997 shows:

  • One in every four fires was arson.
  • More than 500 people died as a result of arson.
  • $3 billion-plus in property was destroyed.

Arson continues to be the leading cause of death of pre-school children (85 of every 100), and teenagers account for more than half of arson fires. Only 16 percent of arson offenses lead to arrest; only 2 percent of those arrested are convicted. Between one-fifth and one-fourth of reported cases of arson are due to illegal drug activity.


Church Arson Targeted

In response to a sharp increase in the incidence of church fires, the National Church Arson Task Force (NCATF) was formed in June 1996. The NCATF is comprised of members of the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), Justice Department prosecutors, U.S. attorneys, victim/witness coordinators, the Community Relations Service (CRS), the U.S. Marshals Service, and state and local fire and police officials. The task force investigated 429 fires that occurred between Jan. 1, 1995 and May 27, 1997. During that period, 19 suspects were arrested in connection with 150 of the investigations. This arrest rate, 35 percent, is more than double the 16 percent arrest rate for arson in general. One hundred ten suspects were convicted. The Department of Justice awarded $3 million in grants to 13 states to intensify enforcement and surveillance programs around churches and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) awarded $1.5 million in arson prevention and training grants.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is administering a federal loan guarantee fund to assist churches in rebuilding. The NCATF continues to operate in 1998, investigating all church fires.

Training continues to be a major focal point for arson investigators from various agencies. The ATF recently announced a joint agreement with the American Re-Insurance Co., U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) to develop a CD-ROM/virtual reality-based training program. It will provide a consistent standard of arson investigation techniques and procedures to insurance, fire and police investigators.


The ATF has also established a national repository of information on arson and explosives incidents. The Arson and Explosives Incident System (AEXIS) is an extension of the explosives incident system (EXIS), which has been in existence for 22 years. The AEXIS database will provide federal, state and local users with information on arson and explosives incidents across the United States.

Jay K. Bradish, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a former captain in the Bradford Township, PA, Fire Department. He has been a volunteer firefighter and fire photographer for more than 20 years.