Arson is a Violent Crime Against Property and People

I’m certain that you have worked hard to start and build up your business, and I’m equally certain that you don’t want to see your business go up in smoke — literally.

Arson is a violent crime that kills people and destroys property.

I’ve seen the devastating damage caused by fire. I attended several fire fighting schools while serving in the U.S. Navy and I participated in a good number of fire fighting efforts during my active duty years. I’ve also covered fires as a reporter and I’ve interviewed detectives and fire inspectors who were investigating suspicious fires.

I recall speaking to a Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) supervisor and two Philadelphia detectives who were my guests on Inside Government, a public affairs radio program that aired on two Philadelphia-area radio stations a few years ago. As the on-air host of the show, I asked the three veteran arson investigators a series of questions about the deadly crime.

The investigators explained that while most people think of arson as kids playing with matches (which was the case with the recent California fires) or business people torching their own establishments for insurance money, arson is a crime committed for a wide variety of reasons that include vandalism or personal disputes between workers, neighbors, spouses, and paramours.

Additionally, the investigators said, arson is a tool used by violent drug dealers to intimidate witnesses, fight competitors or extract revenge. Arson is also used as a means to cover up the crimes of murder and burglary. Thankfully, forensic science is at an advanced level where investigators can often shift through fire debris and discover the “point of origin,” which is where the fire was started by an arsonist.

There are different types of arsonists, ranging from the pyromaniac to the “torches,” — the professional criminal who sets fires for profit.

According to the 2006 crime statistics released by the FBI on September 24th, the estimated volume of violent crime increased 1.9 percent. Nationally, 69,055 arson offenses were reported, which increased arson by 2.1 percent over the previous year’s reporting.

The FBI’s annual report Crime in the United States is a statistical compilation of offense and arrest data as reported by law enforcement agencies throughout the country. The FBI collected the data via the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program. More than 17, 500 city, county, college and university, state, tribal and federal agencies voluntarily participated in the program.

The UCR defines arson as any willing or malicious burning or attempting to burn, with or without intent to defraud, a dwelling house, public building, motor vehicle or aircraft, or personal property of another person. The FBI only includes the fires that investigations have determined to be willfully set — not fires labeled as suspicious or of unknown origin.

Most arson fires are started outside of stores and business places. Someone with a score to settle or gang members and bored kids, can set fire to your stacked refuse, such as plastic containers, newspapers, packing material and boxes. It’s a good idea to keep the area outside of your business clear of flammable trash.

Fires can also be set inside your business. Fires can be set by igniting an incendiary device, like a Molotov cocktail, which is simply a glass container with a flammable liquid. John Orr, a respected California fire inspector turned arsonist, used a simple incendiary device made with a lit cigarette, a rubber band, paper matches, and a piece of notebook paper.

What can you do to prevent arson fires? You can become security and safety conscious and practice vigilance. Report threatening or suspicious behavior to the police. Train your employees to do the same. Control who has access to your storage areas. And you can install fire prevention equipment such as smoke detectors and other fire detection systems. You should also have fire extinguishers on your property.

In my last column, I advocated the use of cameras to deter and solve crimes. Arson is one of the crimes that cameras can deter. Also ensure that your place of business, be it a store or your residence, has a good fire escape plan and everyone knows the plan.

“Arson is a violent crime,” a detective once told me. “It’s murder by fire.”

To learn more about arson and the interesting story of the fire captain turned arsonist mentioned above, I recommend that you read Joseph Wambaugh’s Fire Lover: A True Story.

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