Prevention, investigation key to eliminating arson deaths

Arson fires needlessly place firefighters in harm's way; reducing arson will reduce line of duty deaths

The two Toledo firefighters who died last week and the subsequent arrest of the property owner for intentionally setting the fire is a grim and all-too-familiar reminder of how serious arson is. It is clearly not something that should be taken lightly by prosecutors, investigators, firefighters or civilians.

Every fire represents a risk to firefighter health and safety. Those intentionally set fires are a needless risk for firefighters.

I suspect most firefighters get that.

When I see very light sentencing for property-damage arsons, I suspect that those in our judicial system don't appreciate that risk. I suspect that residents — the voting public — who have never been touched by arson or have no connection to the fire service do not appreciate that risk either.

The criminals and deviants who are setting fires certainly don't know or care about the risk to firefighters.

You don't have to dig very deep into the past to prove that risk.

In addition to the two Toledo firefighters who died, arson charges were recently filed in connection with a fire that killed a Georgia fire lieutenant and a Michigan jury sentenced a man for setting a fire that burned a firefighter.

There was also the recent story of a convicted arsonist and murderer, whose fire killed a Detroit firefighter, seeking a sentence reduction. To their credit, Detroit firefighters showed up in force to the hearing; the criminal's request was denied.

Making sure these scumbags do their time is only part of the battle. If Ray Abou-Arab is found guilty of killing Toledo firefighters Stephen Machcinski and James Dickman and given a stiff sentence, we will certainly feel vindicated.

But no sentence can bring firefighters Machcinski and Dickman back to life.

That's why we need well-trained and well-funded fire investigation units. Municipalities need to understand the critical role investigators play and resist the urge to slash their budgets.

Just as important, we need well-planned and executed arson-prevention programs so no firefighter has to die because teenagers are bored or slumlords are greedy. And this has to start in the grade schools.

Michigan has a long-standing statewide arson prevention committee worth looking at for those without some formal prevention program. A quick visit to their sponsors' page and you see that they get funding from a collection of private and public donors. The money is there for those determined enough.

There's likely no magic solution to eradicating arson. But it is in everyone's interest that we try — lives are depending on it. 

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