Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Firefighters union confident arson unit will stay intact

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The head of Winnipeg's firefighters union is confident the city will not remove firefighters from the arson strike force, saying doing so would be a "disaster."

Earlier this year, the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service launched a review to determine whether its six investigators should remain a part of the Winnipeg arson strike force. The force was created in 1999 as a temporary unit to solve a slew of arsons that had swept through the city.

The investigators determine whether a fire has been deliberately set. The force is made up of firefighters, officers from the police major crimes unit and staff from the provincial fire commissioner's office. Winnipeg spends $700,000 annually to fund the six firefighters who are part of the force.

United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg president Alex Forrest said he thinks the city will not remove firefighters from the unit since they are too intertwined in arson investigations. He said the move would result in a severe reduction in service. Forrest said officials saw an internal memo that stated the unit was set to disband Sept. 8.

He said union officials have since lobbied to keep the unit intact. Forrest said he has not seen a finished copy of the department's review into the matter, but he is confident officials have changed their minds.

"They've realized there's no possible way you can remove the arson strike force from the department," he said. "It would basically be a disaster if that unit was closed down."

City of Winnipeg officials declined to comment on the review since a report "is still being considered."

Bill Clark, Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service deputy chief of operations, said new data show 191 arsons were recorded from June to August 2012 -- a figure he said shows the number of deliberately set fires has remained fairly constant. Clark said many of the fires originated in garbage bins and spread to garages, fences or other properties.

If a garbage bin fire spreads to a garage, he said, the service records the incident as two counts of arson since it has affected a secondary piece of property.

Protection and community services chairwoman Coun. Paula Havixbeck (Charleswood-Tuxedo) said she expects the review of the arson strike force will be made public in November. She plans to reserve her comments until the final recommendations are released.

The fire paramedic service has investigators available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to help determine if a fire is suspicious. If the firefighters rule a blaze may have been deliberately set, the investigation is turned over to police.

If they cannot determine that a fire has been intentionally set, members of the provincial fire commissioner's office are called to the scene.

Forrest said the strike force has helped get a large number of arsonists off the streets.

He said Winnipeg has one of the highest arson rates in the country and said deliberately set blazes pose the most danger to the public since they're typically set at night using accelerants.

Arson by the numbers



A total of 191 arsons were recorded from June 1 to Aug. 31. Fire officials say many were garbage-bin fires that spread to garages or fences. An arson that starts in a garbage bin and spreads to a garage would be counted as two separate arsons.






Winnipeg recorded 229 arsons from July to August 2011 -- the highest number of monthly arsons reported in a five-year period.


--Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service / City of Winnipeg

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 9, 2012 B1

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