WASHINGTON - The nation’s fire marshals are calling for reforms in how fire departments report the causes of fires in their communities, voicing growing concerns that arson and the rate of deliberate fire-setting have been grossly understated in official fire statistics.
The National Association of State Fire Marshals today issued a report of its investigation into why nearly half of the nation’s estimated 1 million fires are reported without a cause. The group extensively cited findings of a year-long Scripps News investigation that found most detected cases of arson went unreported to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
“Scripps conducted a cases-by-case review of arson records in the fire departments of America’s 10 largest cities and found that three-fourths of the fires determined by investigators to be arson went unreported,” to the federal government the group said. “That fact has tremendous implications for public safety, for insurance premiums, for the justice system, for the allocation of fire department resources.”
The fire marshals said the conclusions reached by the Scripps investigation “have been confirmed by our research.”
The United States Fire Administration for many years has reported that only about 5 percent of all building fires are deliberately set. But independent fire experts are saying publicly, for the first time, that they believe the official arson estimate is wrong by an order of magnitude.
“The best guess that I believe: The rate of arson in America is somewhere around 40 to 50 percent,” said New Hampshire State Fire Marshal Bill Degnan, president of the national fire marshals’ organization. There are many reasons for the gap in reporting. In some cities, such as New York, the Bureau of Fire Investigation actually detects arson in about 40 percent of the cases it investigations in recent years. But detectives at the NY Bureau of Fire Investigation have their own reporting system that does not have a physical link to the national system.
Degnan said that local fire investigators are often are reluctant, even fearful, to report arson to the federal government. “Unfortunately, many people shy away from making the correct call even though they might believe that a fire is incendiary,” he said. These investigators are concerned they will be penalized if they make even one wrong call.
Degnan said his group is asking the nation’s 30,000 local fire departments to “close the loop” on reporting the outcome of fire investigations so that ‘incendiary fires’ – arsons – are reported to the Department of Homeland Security.
“What that means is that as a fire is fully investigated, if it is declared incendiary or declared accidental, that someone goes back and updates that national report,” Degnan said.
Among other recommendations by the group:
- Training for fire chiefs, officers and front-line fire fighters into the “need for reporting” accurate information about how fires start.
- Revamp the reporting database, called the National Fire Incident Reporting System, to make accurate reporting easier.
- Update and ‘revitalize’ the now little-used National Fire Information Council to develop “strategies and training to improve the quality” of information about fire.
The U.S. Fire Administration did not officially respond to this report. However, the agency’s spokesman, Tom Olshanski, “unofficially” praised the work of the state fire marshals. “This report is one of the most comprehensive that we have seen. There is nothing in it that we would disagree with,” he said.
Olshanski also said he believes the federal agency was wrong to publish reports that pegged the arson rate at only one-in-20 fires. “We’ve allowed our people to make definite statements from incomplete data. That was not correct,” Olshanski said. “There is a problem with arson. We really don’t have a handle on this.”
As an incentive for fire departments to participate in the program, the U.S. Fire Administration has paid more than $4 billion in Assistance to Firefighter Grants since the program was started more than a decade ago. The grant program does not stipulate that information must be accurate for a department to receive the grants.