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Arson: The Overlooked Threat to Homeland Security

More dramatic threats to the homeland exist, but they’re harder to execute than arson.

Arson/Greg Henshall/FEMA
Arson’s devastating effects can destroy structures in a short period of time, but often need lengthy and complex investigations to solve.
Photo courtesy of Greg Henshall/FEMA
[Photo courtesy of Greg Henshall/FEMA.]

As the nation focuses on dramatic, novel or “niche” threats of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive weapons of mass destruction, a big threat to homeland security occurs more than 80 times a day in our own neighborhoods: arson. 

From 1999 to 2008, domestic arson accounted for more than 3,410 deaths, more than $7 billion in direct property loss and approximately 436,000 structure fire incidents, according to the National Fire Protection Association. This puts a strain on local, state and federal law enforcement, fire and court resources. Arson in motor vehicles, wildland and other “nonstructural” properties also add to the impact on public and private sectors.

Arson’s Place in Homeland Security

The White House National Security Strategy 2010 emphasizes threats that are of significant consequence, but occur less frequently:

“The gravest danger to the American people and global security continues to come from weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons. The space and cyber-space capabilities that power our daily lives and military operations are vulnerable to disruption and attack.”

While these threats may be real, the probability of success is suspect. According to the 2003 RAND report Putting WMD Terrorism into Perspective, the “technical capacity of groups to produce or acquire and effectively deliver unconventional weapons varies considerably” and “requires a considerable scale of operations.” 

To be successful, an arsonist needs only a match and a combustible target. Structural fires account for a large percentage of America’s property losses, but intentionally set transportation, chemical plant or wildland fires as terrorist acts can’t be ruled out. 

A recent Congressional Research Service report states, “Pyro-terrorism is just one example of many alternative hypotheses that homeland security risk managers may wish to consider in order to avoid what was famously described in the 9/11 Commission Report as ‘a failure of imagination.’”

Detection and Prevention Strategies

Arson detection and prosecution remain a state and local responsibility, except where a federal statute has been violated. There isn’t a national mandate for reporting arson, so the scope of the problem remains unclear. Many jurisdictions that rely only on fire services for suppression don’t have the technical expertise or training to perform thorough fire investigations to detect arson. Often, follow-up investigation is the sole purview of an insurance company that underwrote the risk and has no obligation to report the outcome. The decentralized and predominantly local nature of investigation, reporting and prosecution is a lost opportunity for an organized national effort. The inability or reluctance of agencies and individuals to share case information, identified trends or successful solutions exacerbates the problem. Prosecutors often are unwilling to tackle arson cases that are built predominantly on circumstantial evidence. Arson is not “on the radar screen” of nationally elected officials or policymakers because other than for highly publicized events, fires generally are seen as a local problem needing local solutions.

An advantage to the local approach is that investigators obtain intimate knowledge of their communities and can build close-knit organizational teams to combat the problem. State and local investigators rely on professionally derived relationships to share information on motives, techniques and individuals. However, those who use fire as a tool or weapon aren’t constrained by jurisdictional boundaries, and networks of leaderless cells or “lone wolves” provide a challenge to detect, apprehend and prosecute. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is building a new Web-based intelligence-sharing database, which is still in its infancy and the bureau will require local organizations to populate it. 

Several strategic options exist to address arson including the following:

Add “arson” or “fire” to the national vernacular. While politicians and policymakers continue to use the acronym CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosives) for terror-related hazards, references to arson or fire aren’t included. CBRNEA (CBRNE arson) or CBRNEF (CBRNE fire) may complicate the acronym, but would help bring these threats to the forefront of national discussion.

Create a national arson awareness and prevention strategy. For years fire departments and service organizations have advocated generic “fire prevention” strategies and techniques, but other than in juvenile fire-setting circumstances, rarely confronted the problem on the head or arson’s root cause. Many campaigns of sound bites (Rat on a Rat) and post-incident rewards address arson after the event, but few employ a preventive approach. Some of this may be attributed to a lack of resources, but it is likelier a dilemma of not having the socio-psychological research on hand to address the complexities of arson. 

The arson awareness and prevention strategy should include simple, standardized self-assessment tools for risk management so property owners and law enforcement  officers can evaluate their risks against known or anticipated threats.

Recruit nontraditional partners in the arson awareness and prevention strategy. Although arson often is seen as a public safety issue, there are many organizations that can be employed in the fight at all government levels. This may include law enforcement, fire services, social service organizations, faith-based organizations and other nongovernmental organizations, the last three of which may see potential fire setters in noncontroversial and nonconfrontational settings. This approach comports with the UK’s effort at community prevention programs.

Provide incentives for better data reporting and analysis. National fire incident data collection is a voluntary effort; the data is often unreliable for various reasons, including data entry errors, poor or nonexistent fire cause determinations, or simply that the local fire services elect not to report their incidents. Although the federal government can’t mandate fire incident data reporting, it can encourage better reporting through grants, awards, incentives and other inducements.

Provide prompt data filtering, analysis and feedback. Currently national fire incident data collection is vetted by state organizations before it is submitted to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) Fire Data Center where it’s collated and analyzed to identify trends. This can take up to two years following an event. Congress has mandated that the USFA develop a more real-time data collection method that should be operational within the next two years. Important to its success, however, will be the quality and quantity of data that’s submitted.

The homeland security fusion centers that exist in nearly all states could provide a role in collecting and interpreting fire and arson data in a timely fashion. If fire incident data were scanned at these fusion centers, trained and qualified intelligence personnel could extrapolate emerging trends that need to be addressed, as well as find linkages among methods, motives or perpetrators. This strategy aligns with the Homeland Security Advisory Council’s recommendation for a national intelligence estimate of pending threats.

Develop a national training standard for fire investigators and law enforcement.  Several organizations have created their own national “certification” programs for fire investigation personnel, but there isn’t a national standard that describes the skills needed to successfully investigate and prosecute criminal fires.

Enhance fire protection and anti-arson strategies in building codes to enhance resiliency. Fire-resistant  construction and automatic sprinklers improve a building for life safety and property protection. Though unable to prevent all fires, this construction method mitigates the impacts of those that occur, including arson. Building codes also provide generous design latitude and don’t require that all structures meet these rules.

Homeland security strategies should encompass an all-hazards approach. The current national discussion on CBRNE threats focuses on high-risk/low-frequency events, but doesn’t address man-made threats that occur daily and aren’t always on the front pages of the national news media. Total fire deaths from the last decade and property loss due to arson exceeds that of all domestic terrorist attacks combined and must be addressed as part of a national security strategy.

Robert A. Neale is deputy superintendent for the U.S. National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md., and with its state partners trains more than 120,000 first responders each year. The fire academy is part of the FEMA component of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.