The Houston Fire Department finished the year 2011 with a 17.43 percent arson clearance rate above The FBI Uniform Crime Report national average of 13 percent for cities of comparable population. Investigators responded to nearly 1,115 fire investigations during the year. Of those, 763 were ruled intentionally set by the investigators.
According to Fire Chief Terry Garrison, the City of Houston has a history of aggressively addressing arson and fire investigation since the inception of the Arson Division after World War Two. That tradition has continued and the Division has grown with the city.
“The better the clearance rate, the less crime and less likelihood we have of another fire or possible death due to a purposely set fire,” said Fire Chief Terry Garrison.
Houston Arson investigators are promoted from within the Houston Fire Department through civil service test. Each investigator is trained extensively on the job and attend a police academy and become Texas Peace Officers. They also receive the formal training to achieve Texas State certification as arson investigators.
“The dedication and hard work of our members plays a significant part of our success” said Executive Assistant Chief Richard Galvan, “Co operation with our suppression personnel also has been excellent and contributes to our availability to clear cases as well.”
HFD’s Arson Bureau has initial fire scene investigators on duty, ready to respond, twenty-four hours a day from a centrally located headquarter. Follow-up investigators find additional witnesses, obtain search and arrest warrants, meeting with prosecutors, apprehending suspects, and testifying in criminal proceedings.
According to North Sector Chief Kevin Brolan, who has been in the arson bureau for more than 20 years, this method helps to ensure the case is completed. In many arson units throughout the country, the investigators that make the initial fire scene are required to follow it up.
“If manpower is short or there are many incidents, the follow up is secondary,” said Brolan. “Case work is time sensitive and must be pursued from the incident for a positive outcome."
Acting HFD Arson Bureau Chief Ed Arthur points out that the success of the HFD Arson Bureau is also credited to the Arson Bureau’s lab facility, forensic photographer, and Canine Unit.
The lab facility is where evidence is entered, documented, and stored. Evidence is processed for finger prints by HFD arson lab personnel. The senior investigator supervising the lab is a graduate of the FBI National Academy and an experienced investigator who came up through ranks as a field investigator.
“The K-9 handler is a seasoned field investigator and helps us “cut to the chase” on whether flammable liquids are present at the fire scene,” said Arthur.
The clearance rate is, in a large part, due to “the division’s long history of cooperation within the communities and areas of Houston and witnesses are usually glad to assist investigators, being discreetly forthcoming,” said Brolan. This cooperation also includes Long standing histories of credibility and cooperation have also been formed with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, the Houston Police Department and the the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ( ATF ).