Education Key in Lessening Arson

The number of reported arsons has declined steadily since the beginning of the decade -- something Robert Schaal, First Vice President of the International Association of Arson Investigators, attributes to the education of members of the fire service as well as the public.

"Anytime you bring attention to a problem and provide resources it helps," he said. "Bringing strategic partners together to emphasize (needs) will only help to combat this ongoing problem."

Arson Awareness Week, an initiative spearheaded by the U.S. Fire Administration, will take place this year beginning May 4 through May 10. The main goal of the week is to make the public aware of issues that contribute to arson.

According to NFPA statistics, 2006 (the most recent year available) saw 31,000 structure arsons compared to 75,000 in 2000.

While progress has been made in decreasing the number of such fires, Schaal believes there is still room for improvement.

"I think the fire service as a whole has been aware as well as the insurance companies. I don't think the public as a whole has. Arson is not a victimless crime. At times I think that's the way the public perceives it."

Schaal cited the deaths caused by arson -- 305 in 2006 -- and the monetary loss the fires cause -- $755 million in the 2006. These numbers have decreased almost by half compared to numbers recorded in 2000.

Despite the recent decreases, economical issues may play a role in possible increases in those numbers. With skyrocketing foreclosures across the United States, some believe financial distress may be an emerging motive for arson.

"Historically, the number one motive (for arson) is spite/revenge," Schaal said. "What we're seeing now is more of a move to the economic impact."

According to Schaal, there is no solid statistical data showing an increase in foreclosure-related arson, but that information released by insurance companies has supported such a trend.

This past week, Schaal was in Denver, Colo. for the IAAI's 59th Annual Training Conference.

"We're providing increased training opportunities. We teach people to be better fire investigators," he said. "We don't want to wrongfully accuse someone. Want to expand the investigators' toolbox."

Schaal said the attendance at this year's conference was "probably the largest we've had in 5 years." Five hundred people attended this year's conference, which targets members of the public and private sectors.

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