America Has a Major Arson Problem
Arsons are happening, but we're not reporting them to feds: investigation
By Kate Seamons, Newser Staff
Posted Nov 25, 2013 7:03 AM CST
An arson investigator photographs flames and smoke from the Park Medical Plaza office building in Detroit on Tuesday, April 9, 2013.   (AP Photo/The Detroit News, Max Ortiz)

(Newser) – America's arson records are a total mess, per a year-long Scripps National Investigation that sums up its findings with this statement: "three-fourths of the arsons ... went unreported [to the federal government], masking a major threat to public safety." Scripps went inside the world of arson, digging into the National Fire Incident Reporting System. It's a database that falls under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security, and happens to be the largest of its kind in the world. The story NFIRS tells: a slim 5% of residential building fires are cases of arson. Scripps wanted to see if that figure checked out, and requested arson records from fire departments in America's 10 biggest cities. It analyzed what should have been reported to the national database and what actually was, and the findings are pretty staggering:

  • In 2011, New York reported 11 arsons but had 1,347; Indianapolis should have reported a minimum of 216, but instead reported zero; Houston reported 11% of its arsons, Chicago 32%; cash-poor Detroit couldn't even provide Scripps with an arson count.
  • And it's not just the big cities: Between 2006 and 2011, more than half of the 23,000 fire departments that report to NFIRS said they fought zero arsons (collectively, they fought 140,000 building fires).
But the story doesn't end with poor record-keeping: Scripps asserts that the underreporting has "serious consequences." Among them: More than 1,000 fire deaths may actually be homicides but aren't investigated as such; arsonists aren't caught and jailed, and could burn again; and some of the billions insurances companies pay out may actually be instances of fraud. The National Association of State Fire Marshals is investigating, and plans to issue a report in January. One theory for the underreporting, per the association's president: firefighters' fear of making the wrong call, and the career damage that could result.

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Showing 3 of 12 comments
Ezekiel 25:17
Nov 25, 2013 11:11 PM CST
We've had two highly publicized arson trials that went south due to the exact thing happening as described in the article. First was a fire in our highest valued home district, Nichols Hills. A $3M mansion burned to the ground at 90-percent completion. NHFD responded and started an interior attack with the chief assisting. The stairs did not have the bannister installed yet because it was coming from a foreign craft shop where it is hand carved. The chief did not know that coming down in the smoke and fell to his death. Because of his death, and the owner being eccentric and taking very long to complete the mansion already, the owner was charged. He was found not guilty. I come into this picture in police academy. We visit the testing lab where defense sent parts of the hvac system. A poorly installed freon line rubbed a hole and sprayed oil on a motor and it caught fire. The lab put the section of line in a scanning electron microscope to look into the grooves of the damage. Then they put in a section from the wall where it rubbed and it had particles of copper. It proved he was innocent. He finished the mansion. Another case was a music store owner in a small town. His store burned to the ground. He faced a trial mainly because he had increased his insurance just before the fire. There was only circumstantial evidence to take it to trial and they did. He was found not guilty but he still closed the store and never reopened. He spent years fighting the insurer.
boss
Nov 25, 2013 1:04 PM CST
Darryl Issa?
Charles P
Nov 25, 2013 11:47 AM CST
Another (old) study showed that if you hire an "arson investigator", THEY FIND ARSON!!!! EVEN IF THE EVIDENCE DOES NOT SUPPORT IT! If you hire a "FIRE INVESTIGATOR", then you are MORE LIKELY TO GET HONEST FINDINGS in their investigation. Insurance companies ARE TO BLAME for much of the insurance fraud in America. How? If they can frame some poor person, they are willing to prosecute. If it is an upper middle class, or better, person then they are LESS LIKELY TO GO AFTER THEM! When someone reports a doctor of insurance crimes, THEY DO NOTHING. They say "he is a professional man". IF they think they can frame some nobody, they do so. Note: when I pointed out to them that all the insurance claims HAVE TO GO THROUGH A DOCTOR, they PRETEND that some nobody loser is somehow "forcing a doctor to lie and make himself rich"!! I said FOLLOW THE MONEY! It leaves a trail. I HAVE NONE! I KNEW NOTHING ABOUT IT! THE MONEY STOPS WITH THE CROOKS! GO AFTER THEM! Nothing happened!