PIONEERING work to bring arsonists to justice has ensured a huge increase in the number of firebugs being caught by police and fire service.
Painstaking work by the Arson Task Force – comprised of fire service experts, a police investigator and forensics officers – has ballooned the conviction rate of people charged with arson from just three per cent to 70 per cent.
Damian Watts, Arson Task Force manager, said their work tackled the ‘primeval’ use of a fire as a weapon.
He told The News: ‘Back then if you committed arson you’d get away with it, now you won’t get away with it.
‘People do use arson as a weapon, that’s why it’s looked on so dimly by the courts. It’s primeval to use it as a weapon – it’s one of the worst things that you can do, not least because it can quickly kill someone.
‘You can be overcome by the smoke – it is devastating on possessions as well.’
The task force has helped secure 500 years of prison sentences.
Its work has most recently led to the jailing for six years of Peter Arrandale, 60, who set fire to his flat at tower block Handsworth House in Somers Town.
Set up in 2006, the task force was launched to try to improve the number of people brought to justice.
It has secured nearly 500 years in jail sentences across more than 200 convictions and investigated 2,000 blazes.
The team is led by Mr Watts, and has a police staff investigator, along with investigators and fire safety officers.
When called to a suspicious blaze, crew from the service help forensics officers find key pieces of evidence – for example, a surviving flint and wheel from a throwaway lighter.
Members of the team are now called to court to give evidence as experts.
Mr Watts said: ‘We work from the area of least damage to most damage and look at everything we come across and that sort of thing, even if it’s totally burnt. If we go too quickly we’ll miss a vital bit of evidence that could be the key.
‘That one piece of evidence might be the key that everything else falls into place and starts to make sense.’
Detective chief superintendent, Stuart Murray, said: ‘We already have a very strong working relationship with Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service and the Arson Task Force builds on that partnership approach. The task force shows the practical benefits of working alongside our partners as we strive to make our communities safer.’