Fueling The Flames

Racial hatred. Vandalism. Insurance fraud. Burglary cover-up. No matter what the motive for the recent church arsons, the nation is learning what the fire service has known for years it needs help with the arson problem.

With over 50 fires striking churches throughout the South recently, the focus of the nation is on "fire." Will the attention help America's fire service?

"We've got to make it help," said Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA), founder of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus.

Rarely does the fire service get the attention of the citizenry and government officials at one time. When the president of the United States summons officials to the White House to talk about fire, as recently happened, it's an opportunity.

One would expect Weldon to be happy. An active firefighter for many years before his election to the U.S. House of Representatives, he led the Capitol Hill charge by drafting members of Congress to respond to the problem in its infancy. Joining with insurance companies and fire organizations, Weldon was instrumental in attacking the issue with prevention seminars for church leaders and an on-site inspection program.

While many are getting behind what has become the largest arson investigation in U.S. history, the deluge of suspicious fires puts good as well as questionable items on the table for the firefighters. Officials, both on and off the record, are concerned over how the escalating church fire issue, spiced with implications of racial overtones, beat other fire service initiatives to the top of the funding list. Millions in funding is being pumped into an effort being spearheaded by an army of 250 federal agents blanketing the rural South. On July 2, President Bill Clinton announced a $6 million plan for the U.S. Justice Department to fund local police agencies in "high-risk areas." The money is earmarked to hire more police officers, cover overtime for existing departments, and for the installation of security equipment and the hiring of security guards.

As a unanimous Congress passed legislation doubling the penalty for church arson from 10 to 20 years, Clinton ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to create an interagency task force including the Justice and Treasury departments. The mission: give the government increased power to investigate and prosecute arson.

Still, the monumental effort is dogged by complaints from black leaders that they are being targeted with tough questions while the racial conspiracy side is bypassed. Leaders are asking tough questions about the burning of their sanctuaries, but some don't like law enforcement's questions.

The leaders' frustration poured out during a recent summit of law enforcers and state attorney's general at Howard University in Washington, DC. They expressed outrage over investigators' queries directed at fellow church members, the use of polygraph tests and requests to review church records.

The frustration from the floor was readily apparent. Honor Davis, a self-described "old man" from Georgia, pleaded: "Tell me now before I go home to God if you are going to give me something to tell Jesus about how you resolved these cases."

One South Carolina pastor asked if there was a supported research effort to analyze the facts critically. "Are we dealing with this in a haphazard, ad-hoc and piecemeal manner?" he queried.

Another pastor from Washington probed further: "Are we sure there is no pattern?" he asked, pointing to the large number of juveniles being cited. His concern: they might be used as a tool of a larger adult conspiracy. "How can anyone in their right mind say that this is not a pattern?" he noted.

Add the recent admission from the Treasury Department that it reassigned two agents after looking at 12 church-fire investigators because they attended "Good Ol' Boy Roundups," gatherings of law enforcers in Tennessee. According to one media report, some participants engaged in racist and sexist conduct at the events. The two were referred for possible disciplinary action because of their "level of participation." The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) did not respond to requests for information from Firehouse®.

A dozen law enforcement representatives from the affected states attended the summit, each noting that they are working hard, relying on federal investigative support and vigorously prosecuting offenders.

Alabama State Fire Marshal John Robison cited a 53 percent clearance rate. He reported 38 cases of arson or suspicious origin involving churches 20 involved black churches and 18 involved white churches. Motives included concealing other crimes, juvenile vandalism, firefighters wanting to start fires and problems within congregations, according to Robison.

In 20 of the 38 cases, 32 suspects have been charged, resulting in a clearance rate of 53 percent far exceeding the national average of 7 to 10 percent, Robison reported.

In Alabama the federal assistance is a welcome shot in the arm for undermanned, overtaxed members of local law enforcement. "We're doing the best we can, hoping to come up with something soon to solve these mysteries," said Lorenzo French of the Greene County Sheriff's Department. A trio of investigators from the ATF, FBI and state fire marshal's office are helping the five county investigators.

Since 1991, South Carolina has had 28 confirmed church arsons, according to Bill Graham, special agent in charge of the state's Law Enforcement Division. "We've cleared 60 percent by arrest," he told the panel, adding "There's no organized group we can identify."

Terry Lloyd, chief prosecutor for the Georgia Attorney General's office, reported nine incidents since January 1994. Six hit predominantly white churches and three involved black churches. Of the latter incidents one involved a "ring," of males 18 to 23 years of age, in a series of central Georgia arsons, marked by satanic symbols. The perpetrators are serving sentences in excess of 60 years, Lloyd noted. Another incident is under investigation, while the third involved "a young black male who had a thing for setting fires," Lloyd said.

Florida Deputy Fire Marshal Candace Crawford reported that although her state's one incident resulted in just $300 damage, it's getting top priority. "We will not close it until we solve it. As long as that takes," she said. She added that Florida has a crime analyst in the arson bureau who uses the Augmented Criminal Investigation Supplement data system. But she expressed concern that sharing information between states is easier said than done. "The more information we can share, the more efficient we can be in our investigations," Crawford reported.

How Good Is The Information?

Combating misinformation is a major part of the current church fire problem. How serious is it?

The National Fire Protection Association has published a fact sheet on arson and church fires that clarifies the issue. (The NFPA bases its conclusions on data for 1994, the most recent year available in their survey of the nation's fire departments. This year's incidents may not be available until 1998, according to spokeswoman Julie Reynolds.)

"Churches and related properties are not a major part of the U.S. arson problem, accounting for well under one percent of reported incendiary and suspicious fires in structures," noted the NFPA. Still, it's the leading cause of fires that occur in churches.

Although this year's upsurge won't find its way into print until 1998, the NFPA reports a decline in church and related property arsons from 1,420 in 1980 to 520 in 1994. The latter figure is the lowest level in almost 15 years. With a count of 300,000 churches nationwide, the NFPA estimates roughly one reported fire for every 150 churches. Reynolds reports an increase in requests for NFPA materials that covers fires in houses of worship.

In addition to sponsoring arson prevention classes for congregations, the International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI) has advice for fire officials who find themselves under the media spotlight. "You need to be cautious," said president Alan Clark, who also serves as director of Investigative Services for Grinnell Mutual Re-Insurance Co. of Grinnell, IA.

"Church arsons are not new but the publicity is a factor. There are copycats who want instant fame," said Clark. Being tight-lipped is an emerging pre-requisite for fire commanders. Firefighters want to be "nice guys," he said about queries from the news media. Cautions Clark: "You're going to get in trouble down the road. And guess who's going to be on the stand Mr. Nice Guy."

Clark acknowledged some of the recent arsons are hate crimes but arson textbook causes pop up too:

  • Burned church, Florence, SC.
    Allegation: Children looking for some fun.
  • Burned church, Cerro Gordo, NC.
    Allegation: Two black contractors may have fallen behind in remodeling work and allegedly set the fire to cover it up.
  • Burned church, Bolivar, TN.
    Allegation: Agents are investigating a link between a church official and possible insurance fraud.
  • Burned church: Tyler, AL.
    Allegation: Young firefighter seeking excitement.

"There are various motivations," said Clark, adding "people want to put it in a nice package and tie a bow around it but you can't do it."

Few churches have the money for fire protection enhancements. The IAAI urges that simple prevention tasks can cut the risk of illegal entry. Common-sense items range from maintaining good locks and special lighting to removing trees around the building and starting a "watch group."

During an inspection tour of the Greater Exodus Baptist Church in Philadelphia, PA, a member of the Pennsylvania Association of Arson Investigators gave the congregation an "A" against arson. "There was little to encourage unwanted entry; it was well-lighted, there was a security system and fencing, and no trash was present," said George Morgan. The inspection visit was featured on a morning TV program in hopes of spreading the message.

The Philadelphia church scored well because it is located in a high-crime area. Much of the current problem occurs in remote areas in buildings that see limited use, possibly just one or two days a week. Seminars (fire departments may also request them) may be scheduled by calling the IAAI at (314-621-1966). An easy-to-follow brochure shows a dozen ways to immediately reduce the chance of arson.

Weldon's Lament

In Washington, press releases, clearinghouses, resolutions, help-lines and handshakes evolve around a storm of political outrage. Weldon's initial effort is growing seminars are taking place from California to Kansas to New York. And investigators are closing many cases.

But Weldon said he finds it hard to mask a sense of loss of the fire service's destiny in the church fire issue. He's concerned over the torchings but wondering if the fire service will again go to the back of the funding line when the fury dies down. His message to firefighters: "You know there are going to be instances when 'the big one' comes. You've got to be ready to make the case for your department," he said. Whether it's a sustaining issue like the church issue, or a flood or a major fire, Weldon urged firefighters to market themselves.

Is the current federal response election-year overkill? Some fire service insiders contend that's plainly the case. Weldon is disappointed over other initiatives languishing in Congress. His own Arson Prevention Act, drafted two years ago in effort to bolster local level arson training and take a hard look at the growing arson-for-profit industry, still has no funding behind it. After a California earthquake and Hurricane Andrew, Weldon sought to initiate a National Disaster Inventory, a computer catalog for fire departments needing special equipment and skilled personnel. "We had 260 co-sponsors as part of a national disaster bill," said Weldon. Almost five years later, it's bogged down in the Public Works Committee.

Fire Commissioner Joseph Cliffe of the Chester Fire Department in southeastern Pennsylvania echoed Weldon's mixed feelings. "It's good that a fire issue is receiving attention," he said. But the 20-year fire service veteran said he remains concerned over the loss of life fire causes nationwide and a half dozen other issues important to the fire service.

Chester, on the Delaware River, used to be a thriving port with a solid manufacturing base. Today, it's a blighted wasteland of uninhabited buildings and vacant lots, next to some well-kept residential neighborhoods. Arson incidents come and go in this city of 40,000 people. Church fires are memorable here because two of them almost led to the deaths of trapped firefighters. In a 1986 fire, security bars slowed the rescue of several firefighters when flames engulfed one sanctuary. A 1992 fire at the First Pentecostal Church put firefighters in a similar predicament. Cut off on the second floor, firefighters had to remove their air bottles and slip through narrow windows to ladders as the blaze engulfed the building.

Cliffe estimated that his department faced five church fires over the last five years. "Three were arson and two were listed as accidental or electrical," he said. Cliffe points to the First Pentecostal fire as a positive move in making churches more fire-safe. "They rebuilt it with a sprinkler system and smoke detectors," he said.

Robison, the Alabama state fire marshal, summed up the situation this way: "Arson is affecting everyone. It is not black, it is not white, it is not yellow and it's not red. It affects everyone. It affects the entire community."

Joseph Louderback, a Firehouse® contributing editor, served as editor of the FDNY's Publications Unit and as a government affairs reporter. He is a 19-year member of the Milmont Fire Company in Milmont Park, PA, and conducts media relations programs for the fire service.