Take Steps to Prevent Arson

Learn how you can protect your business from the threat of arson.

The Flint Michigan Fire Department is investigating a dozen fires set over this past weekend. Ten of the 12 fires are suspected to be cases of arson.

An early morning fire in a Fresno restaurant and neighboring businesses was determined to be a case of arson.

A teenager was indicted for arson in the fire of a Tallassee landmark hotel. The hotel was considered to be the hub of the city.

The Seattle Fire Department ruled that a fire that caused $40,000 damage to a local store was arson. The fire was set in a trash bin near the loading dock behind the building and spread quickly to the roof.

These recent deliberately set fires are but some of the rash of arson cases that are spreading like – well, like fire – across the country.

According to data from the U.S. Fire Administration’s National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), an estimated average of 316, 600 intentional fires are reported to fire departments in the U.S. each year. These fires cause injury and death to firefighters and citizens, as well as an estimated $1.1 billion in direct property loss each year.

I’ve witnessed the destructive and deadly power of fire.

As I’ve noted in this column before, I was a trained firefighter in the U.S. Navy and for many years after I left the Navy I was responsible for security, safety and fire prevention programs while serving as the civilian administrative officer of a Defense Department command in Philadelphia.

I also covered residential and industrial fires while moonlighting as a newspaper reporter. Most of the fires I covered were accidental, but some of them were cases of arson.

The biggest arson case I covered was in 1994 after three teenagers, hired by drug dealers, torched a vacant plant. The Quaker Lace factory arson case was the largest narcotics-related arson in the country at the time.

The five-story, block-long building was burned because the criminals objected to the Philadelphia police using part of the building to perform surveillance of them.

The fire destroyed the factory and the fire spread to the residential neighborhood. The fire destroyed the homes, cars and possessions of 47 families. Fortunately, no police officers were in the factory at the time of the fire.

The arson was investigated by the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), Philadelphia detectives and Philadelphia fire marshals.

“City and federal investigators worked night and day, beating the bushes, going back two and three times to talk to possible witnesses,” I recall an ATF special agent telling me after the fire.

“We caught a couple of breaks and developed some sources,” the ATF agent said. “We got both the people who set the fire and the people who hired them.”

I also recall interviewing a Philadelphia detective sergeant who stated that the arson cases he investigated were mostly set as a result of insurance fraud, spousal disputes, employee-employer disputes, and drug dealer-to-drug dealer disputes.

The detective told me about the time he was tracking an arson ring that was burning down bars and warehouses. One of the arsonists burned himself in the process of torching a building, and he stepped right out of his sneakers, which had melted into the sidewalk directly in front of the building.

When the detective and his partners tracked the arsonist down, the burns on his legs were in plain view.

“He told us it was a serious case of sunburn,” the detective said.

Many cases of arson are preventable. There are a number of preventive measures that business owners can take, including:

  • Install a quality burglar and fire alarm system.
  • Strengthen your doors and windows to keep arsonists, thieves and vandals out.
  • Outer fences, walls and gates should be high and strong.
  • Use quality locks and padlocks.
  • The gaps under doors should be as small as possible.
  • Stored materials should not be stacked outside where they could be set on fire.
  • Report suspicious activity to the police.
  • Join and participate in a local Business Watch.
  • Perform a regular “End of Day” checklist.
  • Secure the building, office, or store, locking all doors and windows.
  • Set burglar and fire alarm system.
  • Ensure that outside lights are turned on to illuminate property.
  • Ensure that dumpsters are padlocked.
  • Ensure that all flammable liquids and material are safely stored in an approved storage area.

Small business owners should make a special effort to protect their property, employees, customers, and themselves from arson.

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