D.C. fire changes arson counting method

District Councilman Tommy Wells asked Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe at a recent budget hearing to explain impressive improvements in arson arrest rates by his department investigators.

According to the fire department and documents obtained by ABC7’s I-Team, Chief Ellerbe's arson closure rate for 2011 was 56 percent, Fire Marshall Faust's rate was 10.4 percent.

Chief Ellerbe's arson closure rate for 2012 was 34 percent and Fire Marshall Faust's rate was 9.6 percent.

The gaping discrepancy comes from department leaders recently redefining arson—to proven cases where evidence supports an arrest. Under the old method, considered the national standard, arsons simply included deliberately set fires.

Councilman Wells says he's troubled that Chief Ellerbe would credit better investigating as the reason for better arson closure rates.{ }

"I really do not understand why the leadership of the department would give an answer that is was obviously wrong," said D.C. Councilman Tommy Wells.

In a prepared statement,{ }released Sunday night, Edward Smith, the President of D.C.'s local fire union, said: "Once again, the city's firefighters are extremely disappointed; Chief Ellerbe isn't capable of being open and honest to the citizens we serve about the operations of this department."

Here is the response from Fire Marshal Bruce D. Faust:

"In reference to the Washington Post Article on the District Arson Closure rate, which was published on April 27th, 2013, I have the following comments:

While there is significant accurate information within the article, I would like to clarify that I am not at odds with the Chief or the administration of the department on this topic. We have been working diligently to ensure the reporting of Incendiary fires is done with accuracy and in meaningful terms according to nationally recognized practices. The only goal is to be consistent, accurate and transparent in our reporting. The value of good data, allows benchmarking with other comparable cities, as well as performance management within our department. We continue to work together to better understand and report the crime of arson in the District. I fully support the comments of Mr. John Hall of the National Fire Protection Association, in identifying this as a “gray zone”, and providing us the benefit of the doubt, so that we can make apples to apples comparisons of our work effort, and improve and synchronize our data."

Bruce D. Faust
Deputy Fire Chief
Fire Marshal