Secrets in the Firehouse: The Truth About Firefighter Arson
May 5, 2015
By Daniel Hebert
For years my partner and I have traveled this country teaching fire investigators how to spot and arrest firefighters who have committed one of the most heinous acts imaginable. I am talking about firefighters who commit arson.
I started my career in law enforcement in 1986. In 1989 I joined the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, or ATF (the E is silent), and in 1991 I was assigned to an Arson/Explosives group in Philadelphia, PA. It was there that I learned of that dirty little secret among the volunteer fire service called firefighter arson. This is why I called my presentation “Secrets in the Firehouse.”
My first “brush” with this phenomenon was when an individual who hung around the fire station and was applying or had applied to several local volunteer fire departments decided to set an occupied building on fire. Everyone got out safely, but a Conshohocken, PA, firefighter was critically injured during firefighting efforts. The suspect was arrested and later acquitted despite a confession. It is my only trial loss as a Special Agent and remains the one case that haunts me to this day.
In 2001, I, along with Richard Jones of the Louisiana State Fire Marshal’s Office, learned of a large number of nuisance fires in and around a small rural community north of New Orleans called Pearl River, LA. As the investigation progressed we learned that the arsonists were likely firefighters. Eleven Pearl River volunteer firefighters were eventually arrested as part of this investigation, all directly involved in committing these crimes.
Over the years I continued to investigate fires with a focus on firefighters. I have arrested over 30 firefighters in my career at last count. I became so proficient at it that I started receiving requests to teach other fire investigators how to recognize and arrest these criminals, so I did just that.
We have found many reasons that firefighters commit arson. Some do it as an act of vandalism or revenge, or for some sort of monetary incentive. But many do it out of boredom or competitiveness, or even the mistaken belief that it will help with training efforts. Whatever the reason, any fire set outside of department-authorized burns is illegal and will be prosecuted as a felony.
At some point my partner (Rick Jones) and I decided that an excellent learning tool would be to bring one of the arrested firefighters with us to a presentation for a segment called “Conversation with an Arsonist.” We approached one of the Pearl River firefighters who was cooperative early on in the investigation and recruited him to participate in our training. His name is Steven Specht. The results were far better than I anticipated. Yes there was always anger from the crowd, but there was also a whole lot of learning and sympathy. Some of the sympathy was from me.
During this process I learned that Steven Specht was NOT a hardened criminal. He was just a kid that got lost in the process, and I speculate that this is USUALLY the case. Let me tell you a little about Steven.
Steven joined the fire service at 16, having both parents and a sibling all working as volunteer firefighters. Soon after joining, another firefighter encouraged Steven to set grass fires so that the department could respond and put them out for “training purposes.” These fires were not sanctioned by the department or part of the department’s training program. Steven was 17 years old at the time of his arrest. This is considered an adult in Louisiana.
As part of his cooperation with the National Volunteer Fire Council’s (NVFC) firefighter arson prevention and mitigation initiatives, Steven wrote the following:
“If I could go back in time I would never have set a fire. What I did has made my life difficult. I loved being a firefighter and now I have lost access to that love and seriously damaged relationships with my family and friends. I grew up hunting and now I can never own or possess a firearm so I have lost that important part of my life.
I have actually traveled around the U.S. with the two individuals that arrested me (ATF Agent Daniel Hebert and Louisiana State Fire Marshal Richard Jones) and share my experience as a firefighter arsonist. I feel that I have to do this because of the poor choices I’ve made and to try and make right the wrongs I have committed. I hope that my talks to firefighters and fire investigators may help prevent others from making the same mistakes that I did.”
Our focus continued to be in recognizing and arresting these criminal firefighters, but we also started focusing efforts on reaching firefighters before they commit these crimes or to stop them before someone gets hurt. It is important to make them understand that even a simple brush or dumpster fire can end tragically. There is a case where a fatal crash involving a fire truck occurred while responding to a fire set by a firefighter. That fire I mentioned in Conshohocken, PA, seriously injured a firefighter who never even made entry into the structure. His injuries were sustained when a hose released from its coupling with the force of the water hitting him in the back and slamming him into the pumper, causing many critical injuries including brain damage.
Over the last several years Rick Jones and I have expanded our training to fire academies and fire departments in order to teach these young firefighters about the ramifications of setting even small fires. Ramifications such as:
- Going to prison
- Embarrassing your family
- Bringing embarrassment to your department
- Losing your dream of being a firefighter forever
- Losing your right to vote
- Losing your ability to buy a gun to hunt or protect your family because it is a felony to ever possess a firearm again
I could go on and on, but I think you’ve got the idea. If you are a volunteer firefighter then I hold you in the highest regards. This is why I am so adamant about catching those within your ranks that would chip away at the respect that you and your predecessors have earned with courage and blood. If you are a firefighter who has set fires in the past, then stop before a tragedy occurs. If you are encouraged to set a fire by some other firefighter so that your department can respond, then tell someone. Understand this: THIS IS NOT A GAME, IT IS A CRIME. You will be caught at some point and no mercy will come your way.
If you are a chief or training officer, I highly recommend that you contact the National Volunteer Fire Council and request their Firefighter Arson Prevention & Recovery Toolkit. It contains everything you need to educate your firefighters on this national problem. I know that fire departments are often looking for training opportunities, and this one is professionally packaged and ready to go. The NVFC also produced an educational video that should be required viewing for every new recruit and required as a refresher for the entire department once a year. One 15-minute video might prevent a situation that is at best an embarrassment to the department, and it could even prevent a catastrophe.
Daniel Hebert is a retired Senior Special Agent with the U.S. Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) where he worked as an Arson and Explosives investigator for much of his 27 years in law enforcement. Hebert is a graduate of Louisiana Tech University and has taught extensively both nationally and internationally. He is a member of the International Association of Arson Investigators and is currently the Vice President of the IAAI Foundation. Hebert holds numerous certifications, including IAAI-Certified Fire Investigator (CFI), and is currently working with his old partner Richard Jones at Forensic Investigations Group.