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

(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.

An arson investigator photographs flames and smoke from the Park Medical Plaza office building in Detroit on Tuesday, April 9, 2013.
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)
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