Law Enforcement Investigators Vital in Fire/EMS
Public safety is priority in Prince George’s County, Md.
By Karen Bune, Wednesday, February 2, 2011, http://www.lawofficer.com/
The usual perception of a Fire/EMS Department is one comprised of professional firefighters riding fire trucks and putting out fires coupled with medics riding ambulances and providing emergency medical service. Although firefighters and medics often find themselves together on the scene of a traffic accident or summoned by police to a call for service where victims of crime may be injured, most don’t realize that some Fire/EMS departments have professionals on board who are actually performing law enforcement duties. One such department is the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department in Prince George’s County, Md.
Within the department, the Office of the Fire Marshall exists under the Special Operations Division under the leadership of Lt. Col. Scott Hoglander. Under Lt. Col. Hoglander, the unit is comprised of a battalion chief, two captains, four lieutenants, four fire investigators, a firefighter and three civilians. The three components include fire and arson investigations, fire prevention code enforcement and a bomb squad.
“The personnel assigned to the Office of the Fire Marshal are some of the most dedicated employees within the Fire/EMS Department,” says Acting Battalion Chief Paul Gomez. “Their commitment to the job is unrelenting.”
It’s rare for a bomb squad to exist in a fire department, rather than a police department, but in this Maryland County it does.
“We in the police department rely on the Prince George’s County Fire Department bomb squad to disable any suspicious devices that are reported to us. For us, it’s natural for the fire department to undertake this duty because they have the infrastructure in place to manage the equipment necessary to do the job,” says Maj. Andrew Ellis of the Prince George’s County Police Department. Some personnel have diverse roles such as those who are fire investigators but may also perform the role of a bomb technician in the field and also ride fire trucks. “The Office of the Fire Marshall comprises a wide variety of skill sets and services to include mitigating hazardous devices, inspecting buildings, making arrests and investigating arsons and bombings,” says Acting Battalion Chief Paul Gomez.
In Prince George’s County, those who perform law enforcement duties within the fire department are fully trained in law enforcement policies and procedures and obtain the same training as the county police. They attend the police academy and possess full police powers.
With these capabilities, the Prince George’s County Fire Department is distinctive in a number of ways. It has been highly successful in obtaining numerous grant opportunities that have enhanced its law enforcement capabilities. The Urban Area Security Initiative has enabled the department to be receiving, imminently, a new bomb truck valued at $430,000 that will be ready to be put into service upon arrival. In addition, the department has augmented its technology with digital cameras for evidence collection. It has also recently received funding to replace the Fire Investigations Mobile Crime Lab which consists of an evidence scene collection vehicle that carries all the tools and specialty equipment along with active light sources needed for a post-blast crime scene.
In this large county, it’s not uncommon for the fire department to run two to three fires per day, a couple threats a week, a couple fall-outs once a month, in addition to the staffing levels being taxed by running from one call to another. “It’s difficult to take staffing from the compliment,” says Lt. Col. Hoglander. Therefore, vital partnerships have been established that proved valuable in significant cases particularly where budget and staffing constraints make it difficult for the department to proceed totally on its own.
The department utilizes a task force comprised of people from other agencies to assist in major cases such as the notable D.C. arson case. “For a period around 2003 to 2004, there was a series of set fires in Prince George’s County and the District of Columbia. All of the fires were similar in nature and investigators felt were being committed by the same person. A task force was created including federal, state and local fire and police departments. Through an exhaustive investigation that involved good old fashion law enforcement tactics and the use of modern day technology, a suspect was identified and later arrested. He has been charged with numerous crimes of arson, including one death and has confessed to hundreds of others,” says Mark Brady, the Public Information Officer and Director of Community Outreach for the fire department.
“Arson is one of the hardest crimes to prove,” says Lt. Col. Hoglander. Evidence is destroyed by fire and, consequently, the process of elimination has to be utilized along with scientific methods. Oftentimes, accelerant canine dogs are utilized when there’s a high dollar loss or significant injuries to civilians. The fire chief is always briefed when there is an arson case, and the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department works closely and in collaboration with federal agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF).
“We have a great working relationship with them,” Lt. Col. Hoglander says. He points out that cooperative and collaborative relationships are critical particularly during tough economic times and tight funding.
Accidental and natural causes have to be eliminated in arson cases -- if they are ruled out, the chance of arson is great. Fires are investigated for two reasons. “If it is accidental, part of our job is to identify what the cause is,” says Lt. Hoglander. Secondly, it must be determined if there is an apparent trend with the fires. If one is discovered, a report to a consumer safety agency is issued. In arson cases, investigators frequently appeal to the public for assistance in locating suspects.
The primary reporting system for fire, arson and explosion cases is the Bomb and Arson Tracking System. It is one that inputs suspects, victims and witnesses. The Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department was the test pilot agency for this system, and the department has more entries in the system than the entire state of California.
Members of the Maryland Fire and Arson Explosions Investigators Association that’s comprised of police, fire, investigators and insurance personnel meet bimonthly in the National Capitol Region. They receive quality training to enhance their professional capabilities, and they assess their goals and review trends throughout the state.
The law enforcement professionals of the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department are well trained, well connected, and well aware of the importance of their unique role within the fire department. Equipped with a gun, badge, vital equipment and full police powers, these individuals are an asset to both the fire and police departments. They’re making valuable strides in a county laden with a heavy call volume and an unrelenting demand for their necessary expertise.