Policies making arson investigations more difficult to solve

Some fire department procedures in Augusta are making things more difficult for investigators to solve arsons. (WRDW-TV / Sept. 20, 2011)

Some fire department procedures in Augusta are making things more difficult for investigators to solve arsons. (WRDW-TV / Sept. 20, 2011)

News 12 at 6 o'clock / Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- There are two fire investigators in Richmond County, and they've been called out to more than 40 arsons in Augusta so far this year.

Tuesday night yet another suspicious house fire flared up, endangering a line of homes on Travis Pines Road. Now some are worried that a county policy is making it difficult to solve these crimes.

Micheal Mashburn looked over the charred remains of an abandoned home on Travis Pine Road. He lives a few doors down and watched firefighters battle the blaze early Tuesday morning.

"It didn't surprise me," he said. "I said, 'Well, they burned another one.'"

Not just another one; the same one. Fire Investigator Neal Brown said this is the second time he's been called to the same home for a fire in the last month.

"Matter of fact," Lt. Brown added, "This is one of six fires on this street in the last two years and eight days. That's averaging out to about one fire every four months on this one little block."

But sometimes when investigators try to solve arson cases, they run into roadblocks. By state law, if an investigator is called to a scene while firefighters are still there, he may investigate the property for a "reasonable time."

However, if firefighters have left the scene, the investigator may only go on the property with written permission by the homeowner or a warrant signed by a judge. So it makes reasonable sense that investigators often try to respond to suspected arson cases as soon as possible in order to collect evidence immediately.

According to the Richmond County Fire Department's Standard Operating Procedures: "There are established incidents upon which an investigator must be notified immediately, including after normal business hours."

The policy goes on to list specific examples, such as fire deaths, serious injuries, explosions and bombings and "when definite evidence of arson is detected, with the exception of vehicle fires and vacant/abandoned residential structures." The policy indicates the incident commander should not call in the on-call fire investigator in the case of an abandoned house fire. Officials say these procedures were updated in December 2010.

The investigator can't go on the property itself the next day, even if it's abandoned, unless he can track down a property owner.

"I cannot enter the property," Brown said. "I'm unable to locate a homeowner, and I must have written permission or a search warrant to enter the property."

Neighbors say the fire department's policy just doesn't make sense.

"A rule like that to me is backwards. [The investigator] is not on the property to do damage. He's on the property to find out what happened and find out if he can catch who's doing this," Mashburn said. "This fire needs to be investigated, and it needs to be investigated as soon as possible."

It's not just arson. Mashburn says burglaries, vandalism and drugs are common around their area. He and his neighbors are worried about all the crime.

"Because of the crime, because of the fire and the dryness, everybody's worried," he said. "What's gonna be next?"

Brown says the situation is not typical for a neighborhood.

"Like I said, this is just one little block on one street," he said. "I would be concerned. I am very concerned."

But until investigators can access the property to do their work, the Travis Pines Road arsons -- all in abandoned homes -- may be left unsolved.

According to Richmond County reports:

  • In 2008, deputies made arrests in 7 percent of the 114 reported arson cases.
  • In 2009, deputies made arrests in 6.2 percent of the 64 reported arson cases.
  • In 2010, deputies made arrests in 10.1 percent of the 59 reported arson cases.
  • So far in 2011, deputies have made arrests in 4.7 percent of the 42 reported arson cases.

Investigators admit they've noticed fewer arrests this year, and say part of that is because of the new Standard Operating Procedures policy regarding abandoned house and vehicle fires.


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