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Norwich arson task force is back in action

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Norwich — Right around when city fire Chief Kenneth Scandariato first took his post in March 2005, a few people said to him something he can’t shake to this day.

“I was told, ‘Our city is always burning,’” Scandariato said. “Immediately I said, ‘And why is that OK?’”

After a few months of settling in to his new gig, Scandariato attempted to tackle the problem in the way he tackles many: with numbers.

Every time a fire flared up in the City Consolidated District, the chief added information to a file on his computer. When was the fire called in? In what type of structure did it occur? Does it appear to be incendiary?

Eleven years later, he’s got a file full of answers to those and other questions — such as whether firefighters were injured or how many alarms the fire required — for each of the 123 fires he’s overseen during his tenure.

“I started really paying attention in ’06,” he said, explaining that it was then he first met with retired police Chief Louis J. Fusaro Sr. to suggest there were too many fires in the city. “I said, ‘I think we have a problem here.’”

In 2007, as the city dealt with twice as many fires as it had in 2006, Norwich’s arson task force was born.

In the years that followed, the group — a collaboration between city police, state fire marshals and the Norwich Fire Department — netted 34 convictions in arson cases, a number Scandariato has been told is the highest in the state.

But as the number of incendiary fires dwindled — there were five from 2011 to 2015, compared to six in 2010 alone — so, too, did the force’s work.

That is, until last month, when fires intentionally set in the vacant mill at 132 Franklin St. and the vacant YMCA building on Main Street on back-to-back days raised red flags.

“What this does is it flashes us back to ’07, when we were having that rash of fires,” Scandariato said. “With every (incendiary) fire, I’m always concerned. If it happens twice, I don’t wait for a third time to get everybody mobilized.”

On Oct. 26, mere days after the fires burned, Scandariato reassembled the force, in a way. Although participants fill the same positions included in the last force, he noted, the faces are new.

“I said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do: We’re going to talk about what we know and what our concerns are individually,’” he said, explaining that the session allowed the group to develop a framework for communication and action going forward.

When incendiary fires are under investigation, members of the group are in frequent contact. Firefighters report whether they’ve noticed a pattern in when or where the blazes happen or whether anything inside a structure seemed to have been moved to impede progress in fighting the fire.

Police use that information in interviews of persons of interest and keep fire officials abreast of any developments.

“You have to share everything to make sure everyone involved has the opportunity to respond the best way they can,” Scandariato said. “There’s no sense hiding any information. For what? Accolades and glory? That is not why we’re here.”

The chief said he’s hopeful for a quick turnaround regarding October’s incendiary fires, especially since the cement room where the mill fire took place showed evidence of having been set on fire about four other times.

“The area where this is being played out includes some of the biggest buildings we have,” Scandariato pointed out. “I know police are active and engaged in this. I trust, based on past performance and the people involved, that there will be relatively quick resolution.”

No one told Scandariato to start the task force all those years ago, he said. When he began collecting data to understand the size and number of fires his department responded to — and the injuries resulting — he wasn’t expecting to find an arson problem.

Now, the system functioning in Norwich has been championed at fire marshal continuing education classes as one that other municipalities should consider.

“We’re always going to have fire,” he said. “In a community of 40,000, things are going to happen. But when we have people that have the intention to create mayhem and cause harm, people who put firefighters at risk, we can’t have that.”

Thirty-four convictions later, Scandariato said the opinion of Norwich is beginning to change.

“Now the word on the street is you can’t burn in Norwich, or you’re going to get caught,” he said.

l.boyle@theday.com

Norwich arson task force members

Fire:


  • Chief Kenneth Scandariato

  • Capt. Jim Roberts

  • Inspector Mark Gilot

  • Inspector Lauren Cassidy

Police:


  • Sgt. Peter Camp

  • Capt. Chris Ferace

  • Chief Patrick Daley

  • Officer Scott Dupointe

  • Officer Robert Smith







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