In response to a trend of arsons in town, Graham Fire Rescue Chief Dennie Covey recently expressed the need for the city to provide training that would certify officers in arson investigations.
“Tony (Widner) has investigators but they are not what we call ‘certified in arson.' We need to bring back somebody or train somebody in this way for the city,” said Covey at the May 22 Graham City Council meeting. “When you call in the state, sometimes it takes them hours to get here. So we're having to hold the scene.”
The fire department has an individual tasked with determining the origin and cause of the fires that GFR responds to, said Covey.
“You know, if it's an electrical fire and we know it's electrical then we don't have to call in an outside investigator,” he said. “In the event that we can't find a cause or it looks suspicious to us in any way, then we need someone who has the arson and fire investigator (certification).”
One recent example was the May 20 fire at the AT&T store off HWY 16.
“The AT&T store was obvious. It was so obvious it was pathetic,” said Covey. “Just from the burn patterns on the floor. Any firemen would say, ‘hey, this has been set.'”
The city's protocol for arson requires an investigator from the state Fire Marshal's office. The scene of the fire has to be maintained and the evidence on scene protected until that investigator can arrive on scene. This can take hours or even a day, explained Covey, and requires police and fire man power to remain on scene, taking away from the number of responders available to the city. It also lengthens the rebuilding process for arson victims.
City councilwoman Pam Scott has the unique perspective of being one of the elected officials with a direct say in granting Covey's request. Scott was also an arson victim. Her office at the National Theater was set ablaze in an attempt to cover a burglary in late December of last year.
“After our fire we did have to wait a day before the state fire marshall could come, but I think that his years of experience in that field are just invaluable,” said Scott.
Scott said she is not convinced that training an officer on arson investigation is the best option.
“I think that it definitely deserves more discussion before we branch out and say, ‘yeah, let's do that,' because there are a lot of areas to be thinking about that would be influenced if we did that,” said Scott. “I don't want to compromise any investigations just because we are in a hurry to get on the scene ... I just know from my experience that I felt like it was a great opportunity for us to get in there and have the crime scene worked thoroughly.”
Scott also wonders if giving a short-staffed police force more responsibilities is the best option.
Read the entire story in this weekend's Graham Leader.