Home » Lexington fire investigations unit hot on the trail of cause of fires

Lexington fire investigations unit hot on the trail of cause of fires

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Feb. 3, 2014) — A rash of arson fires this winter have kept the Lexington Division of Fire’s Fire Investigation Bureau hopping.

arsonunitThe small unit has only six employees – and one arson-sniffing dog – to cover the entire city of Lexington and staff the bureau 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

It’s a hybrid unit, where investigators are sworn firefighters and sworn police officers, who carry a badge and a gun and have arrest powers but report to the Division of Fire.

The six firefighters in the bureau are tasked with determining the origin and cause of all fires in the city, especially those caused by arson. If a fire is determined to have been intentionally set, the investigators are tasked with pursuing the source – the person who set the fire.

In the case of fires with an easily determined cause, company commanders from the Division of Fire can make determinations as to the cause. But fire investigators are called when the cause is not easily determined or is thought to be intentional.

Battalion Chief Mark Blankenship is in charge of the Fire Investigations Bureau, which works out of the Fayette County Coroner’s Office on East Second Street.

When investigators go to the scene of a fire “we basically try to figure out what happened,” Blankenship said. “We start looking at it like a puzzle. We examine the electrical system, the operating systems, appliances, the heat and air unit – it may have been something that a contractor did unintentionally.”

“You go through and eliminate the usual sources and causes, then look at what’s left. It’s not always intentional – it could be an act or omission on someone’s part.”

If a fire is determined to have been arson, the investigating officer follows through with the investigation, the arrest of the suspect, and the case’s progress through the courts system.

“We are kind of like a detective specializing in arson,” Blankenship said. If arson is involved, several charges will be filed against the suspect, including arson, which usually carries the higher penalty.

The biggest source of fires in Fayette County, Blankenship said, is cooking fires. Often they happen when someone is consuming alcohol or other kinds of drugs, he said.

All reports filed by the investigators are filed in the police database, where they can be referenced by multiple agencies. Arsons are also filed with the FBI.

While there is a lot of coordination with the police department, the fire investigations bureau reports to the Division of Fire and its chief, Keith Jackson. The bureau also reports statistics on Fayette County fires to various national fire agencies that keep track of how many fires are caused by appliances, electrical systems and cooking units.

For example, they are accountable to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for reporting million dollar fires to that agency. “We also work with the state fire marshal’s office on anything involving state property.”

“We are accountable to the fire department,” Blankenship said. “But you have to be able to work and play well with others to do this job.”

This philosophy also comes in handy when they are working with insurance companies, which will often pick up the tab for unusual expenses involved with an investigation, thus saving the taxpayers money, he said.

After a recent fire at a strip mall in north Lexington, the insurance companies picked up the costs of bringing in heavy equipment and securing the site. “The cost was about $25,000 and the only cost to the taxpayer was for our personnel costs.”

The bureau also sends off appliances and other equipment to engineers who are specialists in those particular products, if they suspect they caused a fire.

“Our primary focus is the act of arson,” Blankenship said. “We don’t get as involved in those cases as we do in the criminal cases.”

In addition to their caseloads, the firefighters in the unit all have to undergo extensive training to keep their certifications. Three of the employees are paramedics and everyone is an emergency medical technician. “We must keep up those certifications as well as keeping up our police certifications.”

“Last year, the six of us attended 1,300 hours of training,” he said.

In 2013, the bureau responded to 236 fires, Of those, 66 were determined to be incendiary. They arrested eight adults and dealt with 10 juveniles. They issued 670 burn permits, another of their tasks.

Another important part of their job is to provide background checks on all people who apply to be firefighters. They completed 114 background investigations last year.

And they operate as an internal affairs bureau for the Division of Fire investigating complaints of misconduct or violations of standard operating procedures.

Members of the Fire Investigations Bureau in addition to Blankenship include Captain Carrie Bowling, firefighter Matt Howard, the K9 handler, Captain Chris O’Bryan, Lt. John Blanton and Firefighter Anthony Johnson, who is currently enrolled in the Police recruit program.