By: Lou Angeli
COATESVILLE, PA (February 7, 2009) -- Since the first of the year, firefighters in this once bustling steel town have seen more work in a few short weeks, than they might have seen during their entire career. A string of arson fires, now totalling 29, have plagued the city's 12,000 residents, and the multi-agency task force investigating the blazes have no solid leads.
It's a news story that is making world headlines, and has many in the fire-rescue services sitting on the edge of their seats. Why? In the past, similar multiple arson events have been the work of those entrusted to protect the citizens...the firefighters themselves.
Most studies investigating motives for arson note that the "torches" can sometimes be firefighters, who light the blazes for a variety of reasons. Most ofte, when a firefighter turns arsonist, it will usually be out of a desire for excitement or as a way of gaining attention and recognition.
There's not much solid research on the subject, but a 2005 study conducted by the Australian Institute of Criminology suggests that, "There are cases of firefighters who have started a fire, reported it and attended the fire with their unit in the hope of being seen as the hero who saves the community."
As firefighters, the thought of placing some one's life in jeopardy goes against our grain, but the fact is that a considerable number of arson blazes are started by people we would never suspect. In my career as a volunteer, I've experienced the phenomenon up close and personal on three separate occasions.
The three situations were not related and were separated by several years, but they were very similar in that the firesetters had a common motive. They told investigators that they had become bored sitting around the firehouse and wanted to "see some action." So, they chose to light up the night.
In the cases with which I'm familiar, I was stunned when I learned of the actions of my colleagues. Even though all were first offenders -- all received prison time. One of the firefighters, who torched his own apartment complex after removing smoke detector batteries, was convicted of several counts of attempted murder, in addition to a slew of arson convictions. It's clear that when once caught, charged, tried and convicted, judges and juries can be expected to come down hard on those who have sworn to a higher power that they serve to save lives and protect property.
For other members of the department, it's tough to tell when a resident arsonist has begun his run. At first, it's simply chalked off to a busy spell. But then a pattern emerges including types of structures, time of day and the arrival of the unusually prompt arrival of the Fire Marshal's SUV while companies are taking up.
The Coatesville Pattern
To understand the arson problem in Coatesville, you need to understand the history of the Fire Department. A few decades ago, the city's huge steel mills once employed thousands, most of whom lived in the neighborhoods surrounding the factories. It was these blue collar workers who also served to operate the city's three volunteer fire stations, some of which were the oldest in the Commonwealth.
But then came the unexpected -- cheap Japanese steel. With that the demand for Coatesville product plumetted and soon the mills shut down with workers moving elsewhere to find jobs. The historic downtown area was left to slowly rot and the housing situation went the way of nearby cities like Philadelphia and Chester. Coatesville's plight came complete with other big city problems like drugs. gangs and street crime.
Over the past 10 years, the volunteer companies have been disbanded. Today, the Coatesville Fire Department operates two fire stations staffed by 7 career firefighters, who are augmented by volunteers who served in the old companies. Like any combination system, the department sometimes experiences problems with adequate staffing, but during the current run of arson jobs, there seems to be no shortage of firefighters.
In reviewing the recent news stories and statistics, most of the arsons happen in the evening after 9pm, and of those the majority occur on weekend nights. Although the department no longer is accepting volunteer applications, nearby volunteer companies conduct move-ups during peak hours in anticipation of more work and cover-ups.
Click here to review locations of fires determined to be arson.
Kudos to the City Fathers
The city administration has been pro-active during this entire ordeal. The Mayor declared a formal state of emergency, giving him the immediate power to acquire resources it may need as it continues to try to battle this plague of fires that have hit the city. Fire Chief Kevin Johnson has referred to the blazes as the "...the work of terrorists."
"The safety of our residents is our No. 1 priority, and we will do whatever is necessary to protect them," said Police Chief William Matthews. "We are hoping that all residents will comply with our requests."
The most recent request is a actually a demand -- an 8pm curfew for those 18 years old and younger. A 10pm curfew has been imposed on other residents, as Coatesville, PA becomes a city in lock-down in order to keep the community safe.
A week ago ATF agents and a small contingent of FBI entered the city to assist the Pennsylvania State Police Fire Marshall and local investigators in determining clues.
Special note to Photo Buffs or those who want to SCUV. Pick-up a Chester County map at any Wawa store, and dial in Chester County Fire Radio at 154.16000 and 33.86 for mutual aid. Stage outside the city along US Route 30 (east of town) or PA Route 82 (south). Another good staging area would be near The Fire Store, along US Route 30, west of town at the airport.