Like many U.S. cities, Mansfield, Ohio, is under attack by arsonists. Since June, the Mansfield Fire Department has extinguished 43 arson fires, including buildings and vehicles, while at the same time contending with budget and staff shortages.
It’s an epidemic that can only be beat by community involvement and cross-agency collaboration, said John Harsch, the department’s chief since 2009. Budget cuts are making matters worse. The city is in a “fiscal emergency,” Harsch said. Lower revenues collected by the city mean fewer firefighter personnel on shift, from 21 to 18. That means when 14 firefighters are sent to a structure fire, only four are left to protect a city of 40,000 people with fire and EMS coverage. As a slap in the face, a tax hike on this month’s ballot to restore police, fire and others services cut during the recession failed 58-42.
“There’s still a lot of territory to cover with that little resources left, and that’s the most worrisome part of where we are at,” he said. “We don’t have much in reserve to answer that second call.”
In addition, three positions in the fire-prevention bureau were cut down to one, leaving the department with fewer resources to address the uptick in arsons. So, the department turned to the state fire marshal and a local police crime analyst to help investigate and develop trend data.
“You add something like this string of suspicious fires and it starts to show we are short staffed,” Harsch said. “We’ve collaborated with other agencies to bring more hours to this project than we could afford on our own.”
A solution was needed to reduce the uptick in arsons. Working alongside the Mansfield Firefighters Union, Local 266, the department helped launch a new campaign to raise awareness and work to rid arson from neighborhoods, said Daniel Crow, president of Local 266. This includes offering a reward of $1,000 for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of an arsonist. In addition, the Ohio Blue Ribbon Arson Committee is offering an additional reward of $5,000 for information leading to an arrest and conviction.
“We need to raise awareness and put our heads together to actually make this stop,” he said.
Crow said there are about 2,000 vacant residential structures in the city, adding to the problem.
“The arson problem is overwhelming the day-to-day operations of the firefighters,” Crow said. “What we are seeing is vacant residential structures being targets, especially in areas that have suffered the last few decades.”
The fire department has been using a Firehouse Software reporting system to track the arson problem, Crow said, who has a post-graduate certificate in urban geographic information systems. He has been studying the problem, including demographics and geographic locations.
“It’s a perfect storm we have,” Crow said. “We have an increase in fire in areas that are poor and an older population with structures close together. It’s all happening in that area, and it’s draining our resources to deal with it.”
Blighted problems in the middle of the city dominate Mansfield’s culture, Crow said. To help, a coalition is being developed that includes citizens, service organizations, church groups, and neighborhood watch organizations. The coalition will develop an educational campaign that draws attention to how the problem hurts the entire community.
“The chief and department is doing all it can to deal with the problem,” Crow said. “Our main message is that this problem isn’t going away if they catch one or two people. In order to stop this, it is going to take a community approach.”