Article adapted from: "Putting Out the Fire,"
TechBeat, Fall 1998. Reprinted with permission.
At times it looked like Utica, N.Y., was going up in smoke. Its arson rate was twice the national average and three times the state average.
Utica's arson problems could be traced to several sources. The city had lost more than 30 percent of its population due to the closing of Griffiss Air Force Base and defense-related businesses. With the local economy spiraling downward and home sales plummeting, some property owners started burning their homes for the insurance money. Others just boarded them up and walked away. These areas became prey to drug dealers who often burned property used by competitors to take over additional turf. At the same time, New York City cracked down on criminal activities, significantly lowering its crime rate but sending many criminals scurrying for new and more lucrative areas. In addition, profiteers bought abandoned housed at fire-sale prices, insured for $100,000, and torched them.
At its worst, Utica firefighters battled two or three blazes a night, with 45 percent of all structure fires ruled arson. The national average for arson case closures was 15 percent; Utica, a town of 65,000 people living in nine square miles, only closed 2 percent.
The inner city bore the brunt of the arson-related crimes, but it was where hope was born. With $10,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Utica, several surrounding local agencies and federal agencies formed the Utica Arson Strike Force in April 1997. From each participating agency, the strike force tapped experts in arson investigation and housed them in an abandoned firehouse in the city's most fire-ravaged section.
Utica was designated the fourth pilot city in FEMA's National Arson Prevention Initiative. FEMA asked the National Institute of Justices' (NIJ) National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center (NLECTC) to assess and provide the team's technology requirements.
"They needed a digital camera, a color scanner, printers, and funding to build a custom database, which we provided," says John Ritz, director of NLECTC-Northeast. "They also needed a local area network, which we designed, built, and implemented. This network gives them the capability to send and receive information with other agencies."
Through the U.S. Air Force's Law Enforcement Analysis Facility, NLECTC-Northeast also cleaned up audio tapes taken from body wires and enhanced the quality of surveillance audio and videotapes.
"The actual number of dollars invested has not been that much," Ritz says. "The task force has substantial manpower and expertise in every area of arson investigation. We provided the technology that supports what they do. With the digital camera, they can develop high-quality investigative documents, which increases their conviction rate. It also lets them e-mail suspect photos to other agencies, which has helped them arrest arsonists in New York City, North Carolina, Nevada, and Florida."
The strike force consists of a commander, a deputy commander, a technical-resource coordinator, an operations officer, three fire marshals, an arson-detection dog and handler, a forensic technician, a special agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), an assistant district attorney on call 24 hours a day, and six investigators. Participating agencies include the Utica Police Department (UPD), Oneida County Sheriff's Department, Utica Fire Department (UFD), New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control, and New York State Police. Part-time members come from the U.S. Marshals Service, the New York State Insurance Fraud Bureau, and NLECTC-Northeast.
The strike force also took advantage of cooperation, donations and funding from the community: A local communications company provided intercoms for the strike force's offices; a cellular phone company supplied phones to investigators for free for six months; local businesses, agencies and colleges donated office furniture, computers and supplies; area insurance companies donated money and camera equipment; the UFD donated