BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Over the past five years, the Fire Investigators at the Baton Rouge Fire Department have made enormous strides to find and arrest individuals responsible for intentionally setting fires in the city. The department went from a 5 percent arrest rate in 2009 to a 30 percent arrest rate in 2013, which is well above the national average of about 13 percent.
"We have some new investigators working for the division, so we have some fresh blood," Robert Stewart, Chief Fire Investigator, explained. "It takes a dynamic personality to be a firefighter in the first place, and it takes even more to be a fire investigator."
Stewart knows all too well what it takes to get the job done. His father was a fire investigator, and he's worked at the Baton Rouge Fire Department for 18 years.
"I have it in my family," he said. "I was a military policeman in the army and I took classes to become a fire investigator because I knew it was the path I was looking to take."
A fire investigator is one part firefighter, one part police officer.
"We're plain clothes, just like police detectives," Stewart explained. "We're do not look like an average fireman when we're at work. We wear slacks or jeans, with a Polo or other kind of shirt, and tennis shoes or boots. We get out in the community and try to work with the people. We all have our little informants who work with us in different neighborhoods."
That uniform includes a department issued firearm.
"We have to get certified to carry a handgun," he said. "To become a fire investigator, you have to pass the civil service test, and then we require our investigators to go to the National Fire Academy's basic fire investigator's course. There's also continuing education and the training for the law enforcement side."
Although it's not too often, Stewart has been forced to draw his gun while working a case.
"We were looking for an arsonist and I entered a vacant house," Stewart recalled. "I drew my weapon and was searching the house. I walked into the bathroom and I saw the suspect looking out the window at another investigator who was walking outside the house. I pointed my gun at him and told him to, 'Stop…freeze!' I then placed him under arrest and took him into custody."
Due to the police training, a fire investigator can place a suspect under arrest, as well as interrogate a potential suspect, too. Stewart says self-incrimination is one of the more common ways investigators are able to make an arrest.
"I can't put a percentage on it, but I can say it's a pretty good amount," he said. "People will brag about it down the road. Just because we rule it undetermined, or we determine it to be an arson but can't find the person, it doesn't mean the case is going to get thrown away."
Before an arrest can be made, investigators first have to determine whether a crime has been committed. Roughly half of the cases they are called to will be ruled a case of arson. For example, from January through March of this year, the 5-person Fire Investigation team has been called to 66 cases. Of those, 49 percent were determined to be caused by arson. So far they've arrested four people, which is clearance rate of 12 percent.
- 2014: 66 calls for investigators - 49 percent (through March) determined to be arson – 12 percent arrest rate.
- 2013: 280 calls for investigators – 45 percent determined to be arson – 30 percent arrest rate
- 2012: 334 calls for investigators - 55 percent determined to be arson – 17 percent arrest rate
- 2011: 361 calls for investigators – 46 percent determined to be arson – 16 percent arrest rate
- 2010: 333 calls for investigators – 53 percent determined to be arson – 14 percent arrest rate
- 2009: 387 calls for investigators – 55 percent determined to be arson – 5 percent arrest rate
One of the four arrests happened at the end of April. Derrick Jones, 35, is accused of starting a fire at an apartment that destroyed one unit and damaged five others. A total of 19 people were forced out of their home.
"Within 3 to 5 minutes your average room can go up in flames. It doesn't take long for a fire to spread throughout a structure," Steward said. "The number of arrests for 2014 is going to change."
Although the Baton Rouge Fire Department strives to continue improving its clearance rate on cases, Stewart stresses that the best way to combat arson is by making it more difficult to become a victim.
"There are things people can do around the home to prevent fires and arson," he said. "Avoid placing combustibles too close to space heaters. Pay attention to your stove top. An unattended pot is the number one cause of residential fires. Do not leave candles unattended. The closet for your water heater is not a storage closet. Make sure to use extension cords properly. It's only a temporary appliance."
Proper lighting around your home is the best way to prevent an arsonist from targeting your home or property.
"Most of the time arson is committed in the darkness, at night, because they do not want to be seen," Stewart said. "If you have more light on and around your house, that's going to help keep people away and prevent them from committing all kinds of crimes. The opportunistic criminal is going to look for a dark place to commit a crime."