D.C. Fire Changes Method Used to Count Arsons

Washington Post: Fire Chief, Fire Marshal compiling different data on deliberate fires

Monday, Apr 29, 2013  |  Updated 7:20 AM EDT
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The D.C. fire department has recently changed the method used to count fires set deliberately, resulting in a lower arson rate and a higher case closure rate for the department's investigators.

The Washington Post reported Sunday that the change had caused a rift between D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe and Fire Marshal Bruce Faust.

Under the new method, D.C.'s fire investigators have solved 72.7 percent of all arson cases in the District, more than three times the national average. According to the Post, Ellerbe said that there had "not been much of a change" in measuring in response to a question posed by Councilmember Tommy Wells at an April 17 D.C. Council hearing. However, Faust told Wells that by his calculations, the department recorded a 9.6 percent closure rate for the 2012 fiscal year.

Common practice is for a fire to be considered arson when investigators believe it has been deliberately set. However, the Post reports, the D.C. Fire department narrowed its definition of arson cases to only cover those cases where there was sufficient evidence of willful or malicious intent to make an arrest.

As a result, the number of reported arsons dropped from 154 in fiscal year 2009 to 32 in fiscal year 2012. Officials told the paper that the 72.7 percent figure that was presented to the D.C. Council and included in the department's budget proposal for 2014 was drawn from the eight arrests made in 11 arson cases declared under the new standard through May 2012.

By contrast, Faust's 9.6 percent rate for 2012 came from dividing 11 arson arrests by 114, the number of "incendiary" fires.

It is not clear who ordered the change or precisely when it took effect, but it is believed to date from sometime after Ellerbe became chief in 2011. That year, the department originally reported 99 arsons in a report delivered to the council. However, in an oversight report delivered in February, the number dropped to 23.

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