Suspicious Fires? What Suspicious Fires?

Is Brooklyn burning? Rather, is it burning on purpose, and more often? That depends on whom you ask and what you mean.

That question—focus of so much buzz in the boroughs this year—was the subject of today's City Council Fire & Criminal Justice Services committee hearing, where the confusion over terminology even had one councilman thinking that an "oral fraud" squad had been formed. (No, no, councilman. "Auto fraud." Auto!)

Reading down a list of incidents, chairman Miguel Martinez cited an "overall increase in suspicious fires in Brooklyn." But Chief Fire Marshal Luis Garcia said that actual "incendiary fires"—those "suspicious fires" that marshals have determined were cause by arson and not accident—aren't following an identifiable trend in Bed-Stuy/Crown Heights, the borough, or the city as a whole. Looking at all of Brooklyn, for example, the number of incendiary fires was 269 in the first four months of 2004, 267 in the same period of 2005, and 264 from January to April of this year.

Fire marshals respond to any blaze where the on-site fire officer cannot determine the cause and labels the incident "suspicious." The marshal then decides whether or not a fire was arson. Nowadays, there are significantly fewer marshals performing those checks; the ranks of marshals have dropped from 214 in 2002 to 100 now. And three bases (in Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx) have closed. The marshals now operate out of Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

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As with any crime scene, the evidence marshals see at a fire is only the evidence that has been preserved, and that gets harder to do as time elapses. Garcia told the committee he doesn't monitor response times. And while the caseload per marshal is between 80 and 90 a year (versus about 32 per investigator back in the 1980s), Garcia assured councilmembers, "We are adequately manned at this point."

Asked whether he had asked the mayor or commissioner for more marshals in this year's budget, Garcia said, "There have been discussions about increasing fire marshals." Asked for a yes or no answer, Garcia answered, "There have been discussions about increasing fire marshals." Committee members found that a tad suspicious, if not incendiary.


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