Fire Storms

An inferno in Greenpoint highlights a drop in the number of fire investigators

But that was then. Overall, the incidence of structural fires in the city declined by more than a third, and the pressure to put smoke detectives on the scene receded. By the time dark, angry clouds started billowing out of the sprawling old Greenpoint Terminal Market this month, the city was down to 80 fire marshals, with another 20 supervisors overseeing their work. That's less than half the number fielded as recently as 2001, when there were 180 marshals and 40 bosses.

At night, when most firebugs are known to prowl, only two or three pairs of marshals are detailed for duty. And instead of operating out of several bases around the city as they did in prior years, fire investigators are now headquartered at a single post in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Adding insult to injury for those who claim fire detection is being shortchanged, two fire marshals are currently detailed as full-time bodyguards for Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta. Even the department's fire-accelerant-sniffing Labrador pup was laid off a few years ago when handling costs were deemed too expensive.

Mayday: A 10-alarm blaze destroys 15 buildings in north Brooklyn
photo: Staci Schwartz
Mayday: A 10-alarm blaze destroys 15 buildings in north Brooklyn

Emergency dispatchers say it's not unusual to hear fire chiefs at late-night suspicious blazes calling in vain for investigators to report to the scene. "On a continual basis we are trying to come up with fire marshals to respond to ongoing incidents," said David Rosenzweig, president of the Fire Alarm Dispatcher's Benevolent Association. "Unfortunately, due to the decrease in the number of fire marshals, it is becoming more and more difficult to provide them."

Ed Burke, former union representative for the marshals, put it more bluntly: "They've shredded the place."

City fire department officials don't argue with the numbers, but insist that there's been no falloff in the agency's ability to respond promptly when needed. "We are doing more with less," said Louis Garcia, the city's chief fire marshal. "We still respond automatically to every fire of two alarms or more, to any fire believed to be suspicious, and whenever there's serious injury or death."

Last week, Garcia had a team of 10 marshals, many working overtime, raking through brick and ash at the scene of the Greenpoint conflagration, searching for a definitive fire cause. Department spokesman Frank Gribbon said that's the kind of intensive scrutiny the department still brings to problem fires, regardless of the cuts. "I give the fire marshals tremendous credit for the work they do," he said.

The decision to use marshals as bodyguards for the commissioner was a post–9-11 "executive protection" tactic initiated by Scoppetta's predecessor, Tom Von Essen, Gribbon said. And even though the department no longer has its own arson-sniffing canines, marshals have access to dogs when needed, as in the Greenpoint blaze, he said.

Arson stats overall are down, fire officials argue, although union officials say that's a self-fulfilling prophecy since there are so many fewer marshals looking for arson in the first place.

But it's not just the grunts in the field and their union who complain about the cuts. Fire safety experts as well insist there is a long-term cost to the city's marshal reductions.

A 2005 report by the New York State Arson Board put the problem succinctly: "Fewer fire investigators leads to fewer fires investigated and fewer arsons detected, which becomes a vicious cycle as arson is perceived as decreasing," the report stated. The arson board is overseen by the state's department of state, the agency that sponsored last week's elusive Arson Awareness Week. Board members include the superintendent of the state police, the commissioner of the state insurance department, and even Chief Marshal Garcia.

"Fire marshals have been relegated to third-class status," said Glenn Corbett, a professor of fire science at John Jay College. "There's no emphasis on it anymore. It's a shame to see how far the fire marshals have fallen."

More marshals investigating more fires produces an index of fire trends, Corbett said, tendencies that might otherwise be invisible to the bravest firefighters. Nor is it only incendiary fires that pose a challenge, he said.

"It was fire marshals who alerted people to a growing problem with candle fires and defective appliances. They come face to face with emerging issues," said Corbett. "The fewer people investigating fires, the less likely you are to discover these things and the less you gain in general public safety." In New York, Corbett added, "the cuts have been so large that you are going to see the amplification of all those factors."

But incendiary fires have always been the toughest nut to crack. "Arson is one of the few crimes that isn't a crime until some official body says it is," said Michael Jacobson, the former city corrections commissioner who helped lead the city's now defunct Arson Strike Force back in the early 1980s. Jacobson said that even with the resources committed to the fight back then, the rate of convictions to the number of arson fires was "incredibly negligible. It was essentially a crime that was committed almost with impunity. It was just very easy to get away with it."

That's what haunts Bill Batson, the neighborhood activist in Prospect Heights. After a meeting of his fire and safety committee last week, he took a visitor on a late-evening tour of the sites of fatal fires in the neighborhood, including the one at 1033 Pacific Street that killed the immigrant mother and her children as they jumped for their lives. No one's been charged in that blaze yet, but police and fire officials say privately that their chief suspect is drug dealing, not real estate profits.

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