Arson is about firefighter safety

Make every week an arson-awareness week; the extra effort may save a firefighter's life

On May 8, 2013 firefighter Brian Woehlke died fighting a restaurant fire that was ruled arson. The 29-year-old had been on the Wayne-Westland (Mich.) Fire Department for only six months. He left behind a young daughter and a wife.

The anniversary made local news in part because the criminal(s) has not been caught. 

The anniversary of firefighter Woehlke's death coincides with the end of this year's National Arson Awareness Week. In my mind, arson is a firefighter-safety issue.

USFA estimates that there are nearly 17,000 intentionally set residential structure fires per year, which works out to 5 percent of all building fires. NFPA says that in 2010, there were 27,000 intentionally set residential fires, which is 60 percent of all arson fires for that year.

Firefighting is dangerous; we all knew when we signed on that the next call may be our last. Yet, no firefighter should be hurt or killed over a curious child, a vandalizing teen, a thrill-seeking mope, a distraught lover, a greedy business owner, a rioting thug or any other classification of person who intentionally sets fires.

So, what can be done? Arson is difficult to prevent, detect and prove.

On the prevention side, we can work with municipal leaders to have abandoned structures demolished or at least secured and marked as abandoned. We can include messages about juvenile fire setting in fire-prevention efforts. We can have candid discussions about firefighter arson within our ranks, and take steps to keep potential arsonists out of fire departments.

On the detection and prosecution side, small- and medium-sized departments need to have people trained in investigation. Even if those individuals cannot conduct a full investigation, awareness-level training will help those county or state investigators who will follow up.

We can do quick evidence collection, even if only video or photo evidence, prior to overhaul operations. Suppression activities destroy evidence — that's just the nature of the game.

We're not able to freeze a crime scene the way police can. Grabbing what evidence we can when there's a break in the action may be a game-changer.

We can get good witness and firefighter statements about the incident early, while memories are still fresh in their minds. The human brain is very good at creating believable, yet false memories to fill in where gaps exist; early statements are critical.

There is plenty more we can all do. The International Association of Arson Investigators is a good place to start learning more.

Arson prevention, detection and prosecution are not easy; if they were, there would be no more arson. Yet, the efforts and expense are worth it if they can prevent one more Brian Woehlke from missing out on his daughter's life. 

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