Almost one out of every three fires in Schenectady was set intentionally — a statistic much higher than firefighters thought just a few years ago.
When they developed an arson task force to dig deeper into the causes of the city’s many fires, they were surprised to discover just how many were not accidental. For 2012, 30 percent of the city’s 379 fires were set on purpose, Fire Department Capt. Doug Faulisi said.
In 2011, about a quarter of the city’s fires were believed to be intentionally set, he said. But then the arson task force started working.
“It is higher because we are more aggressively investigating them,” he said. “We are actively investigating fires.”
In many cases, firefighters are finding insurance fraud. That’s “big” in the recession, Faulisi said.
Not all of those cases are leading to criminal charges, though.
“We may not be able to get them for the arson charge, but there’s enough evidence for the insurance company,” he said. “It’s enough for the insurance company to say, ‘You’re not being paid.’ ”
Unfortunately, children and teenagers are the other big cause of intentional fires.
“We do have a large juvenile problem. The younger ones tend to be [motivated by] curiosity,” Faulisi said, “and a lack of supervision.”
That has been made worse by the proliferation of vacant houses in the city, he added.
“They now have a place to go to light that fire,” he said.
The city’s Codes Department has tried to combat that with new rules for boarded-up buildings. The boards are now attached with special screws that are difficult to remove from the outside but many buildings aren’t boarded up, and firefighters repeatedly respond to fires at vacant houses.
Teenagers are also lighting many fires in the city, Faulisi said — and they may be making a dangerous call for help. Many of them have “troubled” backgrounds, he said.
“Some kids have been sexually abused, some kids have been mentally abused, physically abused,” Faulisi said. “Sometimes, when someone lights a bed on fire, it’s often because something bad happened in that bed.”
Firefighters interview those children with the goal of finding out exactly what’s going on in their lives. They then call Child Protective Services or other agencies to help resolve the problems.
Faulisi said those children are lighting fires because they can’t get away from whatever is hurting them at home.
“It’s almost like an act of aggression. It’s something they can control,” he said. “They want to act out in a destructive manner.”
Fire Chief Michael Della Rocco said he’s deeply frustrated by the number of intentional fires in the city because it’s so difficult to prevent them.
“Those are problematic because the message of fire safety and the use of smoke detectors and so on don’t really affect the person who is setting the fire intentionally,” he said. “One of the things we tell firefighters is … an arsonist doesn’t care whether a firefighter lives or dies.”
The Fire Department runs a program for juvenile fire-setters in which firefighters try to get children to understand the dangers of fire. But that’s mostly for children who have been reported by their parents and other caretakers.
The most effective solution, Della Rocco said, is to identify and arrest young arsonists. He said they will keep setting fires until they’re stopped.
“It’s a pattern,” he said. “Increase in fires until there’s an arrest, then a decrease.”
And then the next fire-setter starts.
“Now,” he said, “we’re starting to see an increase.”