Area firefighters team up for county fire investigations

Services offered by fire departments in Wright County will go up a notch as preparations continue to create a county-wide fire investigations unit.

Scott Carriveau, a Maple Lake firefighter recently elected president of the new organization, said the fire investigations unit has been in the works for over a year.  “Our goal is to try and enhance the system that’s already in place,” he said. “We are trying to bring a higher level of professionalism to what we do.”

The current system forwards the investigation of fires of suspicious origin to the Wright County Sheriff’s Department. But that leaves a considerable number of other fires with no clearly identified cause.

“Over 50% of structure fires in the state are some type of arson,” Carriveau said. “Basically, Wright County is no different, but other fire causes are slipping through the cracks.”

In addition to Carriveau, leadership for the new group includes Maple Lake Fire Chief Todd Borell as vice president and Kevin Ried of Rockford as secretary.  Carriveau said that the ability to identify the cause of an accidental fire has at least one major benefit.

“If we can determine what causes fires, we know where to target prevention,” he said. “It’s all about fire prevention. Part of our job as firefighters is to put ourselves out of business.”

Carriveau said the new program was initiated by Buffalo Fire Chief Robin Barfknecht. “Basically on fire scenes, there’s always the curiosity to find out what caused it,” Barfknecht said. “As I got into it more, I realized the need for something county-wide was there.”

Training for Wright County firefighters began when Barfknecht and the Buffalo Fire Department set up a class for Arson Investigation in February of 2002 through Anoka-Hennepin Technical Center.

“We went to Anoka-Hennepin and asked them to set up a BCA-style (Bureau of Criminal Apprehension) investigation class,” Barfknecht said. “Determining fire causes is what I was looking at.”

That 40-hour course was labeled Fire Investigation I, with two more courses planned to follow for a total of 120 hours of training. To date, there are 42 firefighters involved in the program. Once eight others complete training, that will bring the total of trained fire investigators to 50, with involvement from all 15 Wright County fire departments.  Barfknecht said that he and Carriveau worked hand-in-hand to get the program set up, and it had its initiation two months ago when Barfknecht called in investigators from the Rockford fire department to examine the aftermath of a fire in Buffalo.

“It’s starting,” Barfknecht said. “It’s a slow process, but it will happen.”

Carriveau said that now, once a fire is controlled, firefighters that have the training will be pulled off to begin the investigation. “Each department in the county has people trained in investigation,” he said. “The whole county is working together as a team.

“Our job is to determine the origin of the fire and rule out accidental causes. If there is no accidental cause, then we will call the Sheriff’s investigative team and they will bring the state in.”

Sheriff Gary Miller said his department currently trains detectives as arson investigators. And Miller himself is a former firefighting veteran with 18 years of experience who has a deep appreciation for the new program Wright County’s firefighters are creating.

“It’s taking the investigation process to the next level, and I’m pretty excited about it,” Miller said.

But the new fire investigation program will not take over arson investigations from the Sheriff’s Department. “We’re not trying to get out of the business,” he said.

However, as the county grows and the state budget shrinks, the need for additional assistance is apparent.

“Now, we’ve become a ring suburb,” Miller said. “Our fire departments are better trained and involved in a lot more than suppressing fires.”

A second part of the new program will be fire inspections, with members of the Wright County team available to conduct inspections in such facilities as schools, buildings housing daycare, apartment buildings and commercial properties. Carriveau said plans are to get the inspection program up and running in 2004.

Casey Stotts of the State Fire Marshall’s office has been providing assistance to the new group and lining up trainers. But he said the idea for the program came from Wright County Firefighters.

“The fire departments noted that they had a need in investigating accidental fires,” he said. “This is a hole in the process that they’re looking at filling.”

And Stotts said that Wright County is the only area where firefighters have come together in such an effort.

“This is cutting edge,” he said. “That’s what I like about Wright County. They’re progressive. Go-getters.  “And citizens really need to realize that this program is in addition to their regular duties. They are going above and beyond the call of duty to help citizens and to deter fires from occurring in the future.”