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Vigilant public helps put damper on arson

Fire officials here and elsewhere in the United States say they feel they are making significant headway against arson, a crime that has plagued many urban areas in recent decades and seemed to defy attempts to stem its social and economic depredations.

An arson indictment handed down here July 25 came as fire investigators in a number of states were claiming significant progress in combating the problem.

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The most recent statistics available from the Federal Bureau of Investigation indicate that 1982 may have marked the beginning of a turnaround. From 1981 to 1982 arson declined 12 percent nationally. A major factor in the decline, according to some experts, was increased public vigilance.

The Boston indictment alleges that seven men, including firemen and policemen , set more than 100 fires in Boston and eastern Massachusetts.

Catherine Cronin, a spokeswoman for the National Fire Protection Association, says: ''As with any crime, when you focus the public's awareness on the problem, you'll find (it) will decrease. That's what's happening with arson.''

Ernest Garneau, executive director of Urban Educational Systems (UES) in Boston, says ''good things are happening in arson prevention, and much of it is happening in community groups.''

Neighborhood groups, concerned about property values, vandalism, and vacant buildings, give a good deal of attention to housing, Mr. Garneau explains. This concern lends itself naturally to arson prevention. Groups may take steps to identify ''problem'' buildings, such as vacant, dilapitated houses in their neighborhoods.

After identifying a potential target of vandalism or arson, he says, a group may ask the city to board up the building, take legal action to force the owner to care for the property, or initiate a long-term project of working to rehabilitate the structure.

Also, Mr. Garneau says, as a neighborhood group identifies problem buildings, it finds out ''what owner has had how many fires. This can have a chilling effect on someone thinking about arson for profit.''

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Garneau says community groups using these methods in pilot programs in Boston and New York City have noted a ''significant reduction in fires.''

In Boston, particularly hard hit by arson in recent year,the UES implemented a program to work with community groups in three sections of the city. In one, Dorchester, the Codman Square Community Development Corporation held ''block meetings,'' to talk with residents about the status of buildings in the neighborhood.

In some cases, they sent letters to building owners reguiring them to disclose the identity of their insurance companies. Garneau says this was ''both the carrot and the stick,'' letting owners know that their property was being monitored and compelling them to bring it up to code, so as not to lose insurance coverage.

Garneau says that over a six-month period the three groups recorded a 37 percent decrease in the number of ''significant fires'' - those causing more than $1,000 damage, or resulting in abandonment of the structure. A similar program in Providence, R.I., accounted for a 33 percent decrease in fires citywide, he says.

Bob May, executive secretary of the International Association of Arson Investigators in Marlborough, Mass., says other moves are afoot to combat arson.

Federal agencies - notably the FBI and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco , and Firearms - have become more active in investigating arson cases, Mr. May says. The US Fire Administration offers courses to firefighters in arson investigation techniques.

Also, May notes, federal, state, and local investigations of suspicious fires are better coordinated. Combined with public alertness and cooperation, this has brought ''vast improvement'' to preventing or identifying suspicious fires, says May.

United States Attorney William Weld called the recent Boston indictment ''the largest single arson case in history - state or federal - in terms of the number of fires involved.''

Seven men are charged with setting 163 fires in eastern Massachusetts between 1981 and 1983. Several of those charged were firefighters or worked in other public-safety jobs.

Charged with involvement in the alleged conspiracy are Gregg M. Bemis, an auxiliary firefighter in a Boston suburb; Wayne S. Sanden, a sergeant on the Boston Public Housing Authority police force; Ray J. Norton, Jr. a Boston firefighter; and Leonard A. Kendall, Jr., now a firefighter in the US Air Force. The indictment also names Donald F. Stackpole, Joseph M. Gorman, and Christopher R. Damon as conspirators.

The indictment charges that ''all shared a common interest in fires and firefighting....'' Several sought to become full-time paid firefighters or police officers.

Massachusetts voters had recently passed a tax-cutting measure, and some cities had been compelled to lay off firemen and police officers. The indictment alleges that the men who wanted public-safety jobs saw their chances diminishing and ''became bitterly opposed to the tax-cutting measure.''

''They conceived a plan to deliberately set a series of nighttime fires in the city of Boston that would overtax the city's ability to safely respond and thereby dramatize the need to hire more police and firefighters,'' the indictment states.

The 163 fires ''caused over 280 injuries, caused the evacuation of numerous homes, (and) destroyed property valued in excess of $22 million,'' according to the indictment.

All seven men pleaded not guilty in arraignment. Three are being held without bail.

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