County cities team up to fight arsonA new collaboration of fire marshals aims to increase the number of arson arrests in Dakota County.
By: Michelle Leonard, The Farmington Independent
A new collaboration of fire marshals aims to increase the number of arson arrests in Dakota County.
Called the Dakota County Fire Investigation Team, the group guarantees that, in the event of a fire, at least one fire marshal will be on the scene to conduct an investigation.
The DCFIT became active June 1, after about two years of planning. Six days later, on June 7, a house fire in Inver Grove Heights put the group to work for the first time. Inver Grove’s fire marshal was out of town, but Farmington fire marshal John Powers and Lakeville fire marshal Brian Carstensen responded.
The two jointly handled the investigation and interviews that followed. Powers processed the evidence on the scene, while Carstensen conducted the interviews. By working together, they were able to wrap up the investigation in half the time, Powers said.
That’s just one of the bonuses — finishing the investigation in a shorter amount of time. But getting more arson convictions was the main goal.
According to Powers, two years ago several fire marshals and a couple of police officers in Dakota County started looking for a way to increase arson conviction rates in Dakota County. Anoka County had a similar fire investigation team already in operation that increased that county’s conviction rates by 20 percent.
The local fire marshals took a few tips from the Anoka County team, then ironed out the rest of the details. Most of the fire departments in Dakota County — Farmington, Burnsville, Lakville, Apple Valley, Eagan, Inver Grove Heights and South Metro (South St. Paul and West St. Paul’s joint department) — got on board. With the Dakota Communications Center now up and running, the dispatch system now connects all areas of the county.
The DCFIT offers quite a few advantages for its member cities, Powers said. For one, the group allows its members a bit of cross-training, where they can share their expertise and learn from their peers.
“The biggest thing about the fire investigation team is that it provides the whole county with a better knowledge base and information base,” Powers said. “We do training once a month now, so this provides us all with a forum to do fire investigations better and it offers a better conviction rate.”
The practice of sharing expertise has been going on for years. After the Farmington American Legion’s fire in February, Powers brought Carstensen and Apple Valley’s fire marshal through, allowing Powers the chance to show them how the fire spread throughout the building.
Being able to respond to calls outside of their own communities also offers the members the chance to participate in far more investigations. Typically, Powers conducts maybe six to 12 such investigations every year. Countywide, though, there are about 150 annually.
“Guys like me, I don’t get to see that many fires,” Powers said. “This way, all the investigators get to broaden our skills and see more fires.”
And, for those times when a fire marshal decides to take a vacation, another is always available, such as the case in Inver Grove Heights Saturday. Typically, there is a lead fire investigator who is on call for a two-week period. If there is a fire and the community’s fire marshal is available, he or she would respond. However, if he or she is unable to get there, the DCC would contact the on-call investigator. At the scene, the lead investigator can decide if he or she needs more help, and call in as many DCFIT members as necessary.
This is also beneficial for some of Dakota County’s smaller cities and townships who do not have a fire marshal on staff, Powers said.
“We’ll get to any fire in the county, so if a non-participating city or township in the county calls, we’ll respond to that, too,” he said.