Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Arsonists Busy In Delaware

Wilmington, DE (June 4, 2008) -- First State firefighters have been extremely busy for the past 18 months. In fact, Delaware departments have been called out to more arson fires than ever, nearly twice the national average according to the FBI.

The more serious arson jobs end up as “working fires,” complete with heavy black smoke, red hot flames and fire police closing down highways. It’s the type of response that requires more personnel and more equipment, making the fireground a very busy place. Word on the web is that there’s plenty of action in tiny Delaware, so much so that fire buffs from as far away as New England have been setting up weekend photo junkets to the First State.

In a recent
News-Journal article, reporter Terri Sanginiti writes, "In Delaware, an arson is committed just about every day, statistics show. The state has averaged 364 arson investigations in each of the past five years, including 328 in 2007." Kudos to the state's fire investigators who have one of the nation's highest conviction rates on a a crime that is the most difficult to prove.

A Serious Danger to Firefighters

More serious arson blazes aren’t your run of the mill room and contents job. Fire-setters use flammable liquids and tri-nasty chemicals to create a blaze so intense, that it destroys as much property as possible, while at the same time wiping away any evidence of foul play. Inside the structure the fire cooks until it reveals itself to the outside world.

By the time someone spots the flames and dials 9-1-1, the arson fire has had a head start and may have reached the fully developed stage. The room of origin heats quickly as fingers of flame roll across the ceiling, reach out into adjoining rooms and upward into the attic. As companies begin to arrive and go to work, frontline crews face a firefighter’s greatest fear – Flashover.

That’s what happened yesterday (06/03/08) to firefighters responding to a house fire in Hamilton Park, an area which borders Wilmington’s Southbridge section and is protected by Holloway Terrace Fire Company. A county police officer on routine patrol reported a house fire with “smoke conditions,” and dispatchers relayed her conservative size-up to first responding Engine 205.

As the operator brought the E-One to a stop at New Castle Avenue to take a wrap around the hydrant, dark, billowing smoke was venting through every crack and crevice in the 70 year old balloon construction home some 100 yards down the street. The first-in officer radioed heavy smoke and fire, a report that prompted other responding apparatus operators to forget about $5 per gallon diesel prices, push the pedal to the floor and lay on the air horn at intersections.

With the fire now venting through the roof, two hoseteams made entry. But the incredible build up of BTU’s ignored their 175 gallon per minute streams and spit the flames back into their faces. Rather than risk his crews on a vacant home, the Incident Commander issued the order to evacuate the structure, and the operation smoothly transitioned to an exterior attack.

And that’s the problem with arson fires. When companies arrive, there’s no way to distinguish between a torch job and a “legitimate” house fire, the kind with trapped occupants. Regardless of how the fire initiated, during those first minutes firefighters must risk their lives to conduct a thorough search. The burning building is cleared only when the incident commander is convinced that there is no life safety issue.

Some experts suggest that the number of arson fires will increase in coming years because of the current economic situation and pending recession. As homeowners face foreclosures and SUV owners are stuck with the $600 per month payments on their monster H2 Hummers, a crazy few will attempt to collect on insurance policies by taking match to their property.

Freakin’ arsonists – why can’t they be more considerate and go that extra step? Hang a sign on the mailbox which says, “Arson Fire – No Need To Search.” In my mind, because of the danger to firefighting crews, every arson charge should come with a bonus "attempted murder" indictment.

And for the fire buffs who’ve been making the rounds, Delaware’s volunteer firefighters are some of the best trained in the country, so photograph their good side.

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