March 23, 2013 in Washington Voices

Firefighter injuries, arson up during 2012 in Valley

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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The number of injuries reported by Spokane Valley Fire Department firefighters spiked in 2012, largely due to the department’s increased focus on having every incident reported.

“They really wanted to track injuries, no matter how slight,” said assistant fire marshal Clifton Mehaffey.

There were 63 injuries reported in 2012. In 2011 there were 25 reported and in 2010 only 10 injuries. In 2012 the largest number of injuries were in the exposure to hazards category, which can include everything from contact with bodily fluids to exposure to carbon dioxide.

The increased emphasis on injury reporting started in August. A firefighter suffered a minor back injury while on duty, but didn’t report it because it didn’t seem significant, Mehaffey said. Problems arose later, but it couldn’t be considered a work-related injury because it hadn’t been documented or reported at the time. The department doesn’t want that to happen again, Mehaffey said.

Before August there had been 14 injuries reported. The rate should continue to be high in 2013, Mehaffey said.

The department also saw a jump in arsons in 2012 – but that increase can largely be traced to an arson spree last summer. Those 13 fires were among the 73 “criminal incidents” which also include reckless burning and manufacturing explosives, last year.

“If you take out that, we were pretty much equal to last year,” Mehaffey said.

There were 59 fires in the accidental category and another 17 fires that have an undetermined cause. It was the first time since 2008 that criminal fires outnumbered accidental.

Four juveniles and one adult were arrested in July for the arson spree that targeted garbage bins behind businesses at Sprague Avenue and Sullivan Road and Central Valley High School.

A juvenile female was the main instigator, Mehaffey said. “It’s not very often we get a female arsonist,” he said. On the other hand, juveniles who set fires are typically just acting out because of problems in their life, he said.

“Typically with juveniles, fire is a symptom of something else,” he said. “They’re not arsonists. They’re not in it to burn things down.”

The juveniles involved all came from homes with involved parents, Mehaffey said. “It was outside the norm for us,” he said.

The other major arrest of the year was of a man accused of making 700 pounds of flash powder that was used to create 5,400 so-called “pingpong bombs.” The investigation included numerous agencies, including the Spokane Valley Fire Department.

The arson spree also had the effect of raising the department’s arson rate to 56.15 arsons per 100,000 citizens in 2012, making it three times the 2011 national average. National numbers aren’t yet available for 2012.

While arson numbers were up, so was the clearance rate. At 46.59 percent, it is two times the 2011 national average.

Thirty-four of the department’s arsons were cleared by arrest or “exceptional clearance.” The “exceptional clearance” standard usually applies to offenders who are younger than 12 years old or have a mental incapacity, Mehaffey said.

For example, if a 5-year-old is playing with a lighter and starts a fire it is considered arson, but the child is not charged with a crime. “It’s still arson, but you can’t be held criminally liable,” he said. The 22 people cleared by exceptional means in 2012 were all juveniles.

Overall the department did 170 fire investigations in 2012, compared to 144 investigations in 2011. Part of that increase is because the department’s new arson dog, Mako, was requested for investigations by other fire departments nine times in 2012.

Mehaffey said he is proud of the department’s success at solving arson fires. “We do pretty well,” he said. “It’s fulfilling work.”

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