For the Toledo Fire Department’s investigation unit, public assistance is crucial to solving and prosecuting an arson case.
“It’s very dependent upon the public,” said Phil Cervantes, deputy chief. “It’s truly amazing how much [the fire investigators] rely on people in the neighborhoods to come forward and say something, give us anything — an address, a name, something along those lines.”
Often arson fires are easy to identify, Cervantes said. Sometimes it’s a vacant home where utilities have been shut off, so there’s no reason for the fire to be burning, or accelerants are found at a fire scene.
While some arson fires can be easy to identify, proving arson is more difficult. It’s the public’s assistance that helps identify and prosecute suspects.
Neighbors tend to work with fire investigators to gather information, but when it comes time to go to court, individuals are afraid of retaliation and will not testify.
“We may have a good idea of who did it, why they did it and how they did it, but when you put it all together and discuss it with a prosecutor they want an eyeball witness,” said Andre Tiggs, fire investigator. “[Without a witness], the prosecution won’t go forward at all.”
Mike Nicely and Tom Bartley.
Fire investigators don’t want to put anyone in danger in their own neighborhood, but the only way for arsons to stop, or slow down, is for individuals to come forward, said Glen Frames, fire investigator.
The Toledo Fire Department’s investigation unit has three investigators.
The investigators are all trained firefighters and also have police powers. This allows investigators to follow an investigation from inception through prosecution.
If crews come across a suspicious blaze while out fighting fires, they call the on-call fire investigator to investigate the scene.
When first arriving, investigators will talk to the crews at the site before performing a 360-degree inspection of the building, Tiggs said.
“We talk to a lot of guys, especially those who are first in. They will describe flames, smoke or even smell,” he said.
After talking with crews, the investigator then conducts a burn-pattern analysis, takes pictures and collects char samples. The investigator notes things found in the heaviest fire areas and whether those things should be present, Tiggs said.
When there are homeowners, investigators interview them and then look into the occupant’s financials, Tiggs said.
The unit doesn’t investigate every fire and the fires the investigators look into are prioritized by solvability, Cervantes said. Despite the focus on solvable cases, investigations are constantly revolving.
“They may go out and it’s a no-brainer that it’s arson, but we don’t have any witnesses, don’t have the smoking gun sitting there, so they’ll put it on the back burner,” Cervantes said. “A couple months later someone comes up and says I have a name for you and all of a sudden it’s back up to the top. Our cases are pretty dependent upon what we can prove and what we can’t prove.”
To date, the fire investigators have actively worked on 316 investigations, said Dale Pelz, fire investigator. The national average for arson conviction is less than 10 percent of all cases, in Toledo that rate tends to be a little higher, Pelz. In 2010, the fire investigation unit has made 31 arson arrests with 13 of those being juveniles, he said.
In Toledo, the higher arson-rate areas tend to be areas of lower income; the Central City, the East Side and the South End.
“The more depleted neighborhoods tend to see an upswing in all kinds of crime and arson lends itself to that,” Cervantes said.
When the fire investigation unit notices trends in arson, it attempts to pool its resources with the police department and other agencies to flood the area with patrols. After a large trend of arson fires during the summer the fire department works with the Toledo Police Department (TPD), the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) on a regular basis.
While the media brought attention to the “serial arsonists” during the summer, the fire investigation unit had already been detecting trends within those areas the winter before.
“Arson became the buzzword in the summertime because all of a sudden the media picked up on it. It became a serial arsonist running around. There’s probably a bunch of them running around right now, but it became ‘glamorous’ in the summer when there were four or five fires a day,” Cervantes said.
The media attention increased the number of tips the fire department received, but also created copycat fires, Cervantes said.
To combat the large numbers of fires that were occurring during the summer, the Fire Department blitzed the neighborhoods with TPD gang and vice patrols as well as FBI and ATF officers, he said.
“[Increasing patrols] tends to decrease a lot of activity. In those neighborhoods these people know when you see a shiny unmarked car it’s the police,” Cervantes said. “All of a sudden the South End started to die down a little bit because of an increased activity by law enforcement and the same thing with the East Side.”
As the law enforcement presence is less in the neighborhood now, the fire investigation unit is starting to see an increased number of fires in the same areas again, Cervantes said.
“I think it’s picked up a little bit, we went from zero to a level a little above normal, certainly not where it was in the summer,” he said.
Only one arrest was made in connection to the summer fires, Henry lee Jackson.
Jackson was convicted of arson and will spend 10 months in jail.
Help us help you fight arson
Driving back from the hospital around noon, your driver gets your attention, pointing,“Hey, look over there.”
Looking up from your paperwork, you see a thin column of black smoke rising barely a half mile away. The smoke intensifies.
“Maybe we ought to … ”
Your driver turns toward it, accelerating, winding through the suburban neighborhood. The fire radio remains silent. Turning the corner, you see a fire at a residential one-story attached garage is spreading fiercely to the second story of the house and up into its attic. The entire side of the house next door is completely covered in fire from radiant heat; rivulets of siding melts forming plastic stalactites.
Calling in a regular alarm, you see a large crowd of people in the street. Hopping out, the crowd demands you “do something” and asks you, “why ain’t you putting it out?” But life squads don’t have water. Water is on the way. Anybody know about the occupants? The exposure house (the structure fire spread to, not originated from) family is out and safe. Nobody knows about the occupant from the main fire building.
You run to the door and kick it in; smoke bellows out. Crouching, screaming for someone to answer you. You listen … nothing but crackling and distant sirens. Someone runs up behind you and yells that the occupant is out and behind two houses over. His ankles are swollen and his feet are cut up from the glass he landed in. He was asleep in his bedroom, heard his smoke detector and ran to the door. The hallway was completely filled with smoke, so he hung from a second story window and dropped himself out.
How in the name of St. Florian (patron saint of firefighters) could two houses be so far involved, in the middle of a well populated suburban neighborhood at the dead of noon? The investigation begins. Occasionally, arson is the obvious cause. Unbelievably, gas cans are often found at the door. Accelerants, besides an obvious odor, show distinctive patterns if the fire does not continue to burn. These “pour patterns” are often visible after the fire is extinguished.
When this evidence is noted, the Chief calls out the Fire Investigation Unit. Overhaul becomes limited to only what is necessary to prevent a rekindle, preserving evidence. Once investigators arrive, they assess what is potentially a crime scene. This includes interviews with the crews on the initial fire attack and witnesses. The investigator collects data such as photographs and in addition, carpet samples and scrapings are taken from surfaces to be tested for the presence of accelerants. While this may prove arson, it does not provide us with a suspect.
In this economic downturn, there is an overabundance of vacant homes in the city. This can attract the unhoused simply seeking shelter, drug dealers or mischievous children who sometimes, accidentally or purposefully, catch the building on fire. A forgotten aspect of arsons is the neighbors who are frustrated with demolition waiting lists and take matters into their own hands. Fires in vacant homes certainly pose dangers to firefighters, but they also pose dangers to occupied adjacent structures. Heat and flames can travel, threatening innocent and unsuspecting people. This can be the real tragedy.
We can often determine cause and arson. Prosecution requires a concerned citizenry to come forward. Help us help you.
Michael Nicely has been a firefighter for 18 years. Tom Bartley has been a firefighter for 10 years.
Tags: arson, City of Toledo, Michael Nicely, Tom Bartley