Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Fires on Given Rd, along with other Memphis locations, determined to be arson

Fires on Given Rd, along with other Memphis locations, determined to be arson

By:  Michael G. Lander
Damage from a fire at 3074 Given Rd, Memphis, that fire
investigators determined to be the result of arson.
Larry Reed, 51, resides at
3074 Given Rd and assisted
the owner, Horace Jackson,
in the clean up from the fire.

Sharon Person, 46, of Memphis is happy that she had not yet taken her sleep medication.  She was watching TV in her room at about 6:30 pm on the evening of Sept 6, when she heard the smoke alarm in the home that she and three other tenants share on 3074 Given Rd.

When she got up, and opened her door, she noticed smoke.  She reacted quickly by running out to the back of the house, she said, where she found a plastic bag that had been wedged underneath the house that was on fire.  The fire had begun to spread up the side of the house, Person said, and she attempted to extinguish it herself with a garden hose.  The fire department arrived shortly after that and put out what remained of the fire, she said.

Police reports indicate that a fire investigator came to the scene and smelled gasoline and ruled the blaze an arson.  Person said that she is convinced that the fire could have consumed the house and that she and one of the other residents, who were there at the time, could have died. 

The authorities are now investigating to determine who is responsible for setting the fire, but no arrests have yet been made.  The fire damage at the residence appears to be limited to a small area at the center of the home.  The owner, Horace Jackson, 53, did not have a cost estimate for the repairs and said that it was not insured.

Memphis has recently experienced a series of arson fires with one that occurred at a hotel on Sanderlin, two car fires on Given and on North Belvedere, three at private residences located on Bluebell, Willow Wood, and the one on Given where Person resides.  Additionally, there were also six arson fires in vacant homes at 685 S. Parkway East, 1486 McMillan, 1526 McMillan, 1528 McMillan, 2213 Eldridge, and 1592 Carnegie.  There were no reported injuries in any of these fires.

When it comes to arson fires, Memphis currently has a 28 percent arrest rate for arson, which is seven percent better than the national average of 21 percent, Memphis Chief Fire Investigator, Bob Pollard, said.
Pollard attributes much of this success in arson arrests in Memphis to his team of investigators.  There are seven fire investigators assigned to Arson Investigations in the city of Memphis.

"When firefighters suspect a possible case of arson, they call our investigators who are immediately on the scene after a fire is put out,"  Pollard said.  "These investigators," he said, "are able to take a scene apart and are usually able to quickly determine the origin of the fires."

Fire investigators are certified in firefighting and in law enforcement with initial training in both of these, followed with a total of eighty hours of annual certification training as well.  Because of this training, Pollard said, they are able to conduct detailed investigations, interrogations, and interviews of victims, witnesses, and suspects.  They also have the authority to apprehend individuals involved in arson-related incidents and to present information to the district attorney for prosecution, Pollard said.

In addition to the work of the fire investigators, Pollard contributed much of the success of the arson arrests to community involvement.  "We are at the mercy of the neighborhoods and communities in being able to solve cases of arson," Pollard said.  His investigators, he added, rely on the community in watching and reporting suspicious activity involving fire.  "We don't close arson cases and it is not unusual for us to get information about an arson case one or two years later," Pollard said. 

CrimeStoppers of Memphis has been successful in receiving tips that have led to arrests and solving of crimes in the city, the Executive Director, Buddy Chapman, said that it has not yet been as successful as it could be in arson-related cases.  Chapman pointed to only two arson cases in the past 12 months that CrimeStoppers had received tips on.  The reason for this small number, Chapman said, is that many people may not realize that arson is a felony and there are often no witnesses to it when it occurs.  Chapman has been working with the Memphis Fire Department Director, Chief Alvin Benson,  about informing the public that they can contact CrimeStoppers to report any arson-related fires and collect a reward for doing so.  Benson said that the department is partnering with CrimeStoppers in a team approach in order to combat arson.

"We would like to see people call in and report anything involving fires, regardless of how insignificant it might seem," Benson said.  "Arson is not a victimless crime and it is a danger not only to members of the community, firefighters and first responders, but there is always a risk that it will spread to other structures and it can also reduce home values," he said.  In 2003, Benson said, the fire department lost two of its firefighters to a fire that was deliberately set.

Thus far in 2012, Pollard said that there have been 379 requests involving suspicious fires for his fire investigators to examine, with  246 determined to have been arson-related.  Of these, 68 arrests were  made.  In 2011, there were 490 calls to investigate, with 294 ruled to be arson and, of these, 67 arrests were made.  In 2010, there were 477 calls to investigate, with fire investigators identifying 299 of these as being the result of arson, and 64 arrests were subsequently made.

While the arson investigators track the number of calls they receive, along with the number of arson-related fires and the arrests, they do not currently track or maintain statistics on the motives of why people commit arson fires, Pollard said.  The reasons, he said, can be anything from insurance purposes, domestic disputes, or simply a situation of vagrants taking up residence inside a vacant building. 

Pollard also said that there have been cases when juveniles were involved in arson fires who admitted that they had committed the arson because they were simply bored.  When this occurs, Pollard said, they are often unaware of the cost, the possible consequences of their actions, and the risks that it presents to firefighters. 

According to the
FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, juveniles (individuals under the age 18), accounted for roughly 46 percent of arson arrests made between 2005 to 2010.  In 2010, 40 percent of arson arrests were juveniles with 47.6 percent of those being children under 16 years of age.  The UCR also reported that arrests of juveniles for the crime of arson was proportionally higher than for any other crime.

FBI's annual crime statistics in 2011 shows that the average dollar loss, due to arson, is $17,612.
 While arson offenses have remained steady in Memphis since 2010, the FBI reported that it has
decreased five percent nationwide.

For the Memphis Fire Department's Deputy Director, Chief Michael Putt, the primary concern for firefighters is on the strategy and tactics involved in fighting fires, he said.  Beyond that, Putt said, firefighters are pretty compassionate and are interested in helping people.  For Memphians like Sharon Person, she and others may be able to take some comfort in that thought and sleep just a little better knowing that.

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