Last year, there were 916 car fires in Chicago that were among the “most toxic and dangerous” firefighters encountered.
Although many of those vehicles may have been torched for insurance purposes, only 24 of those fires were investigated by the Chicago Fire Department’s Office of Fire Investigations.
“Obviously, there’s a black hole that we need to fill,” said Deputy District Chief Michael Murphy, commanding fire marshal of the Chicago Fire Department’s Office of Fire Investigations.
“We don’t normally get fires that burn at 2 o’clock in the afternoon on Michigan Avenue. We get car fires that are in suspicious locations in different areas of the city of Chicago at strange times of day and night where ownership usually isn’t available.”
On Tuesday, the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety moved to fill that “black hole.”
Aldermen approved an ordinance championed by Southwest Side Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) that would require the owner of any vehicle burned and rendered “permanently inoperable” in Chicago to submit to the fire commissioner a “signed statement” about the incident and “attest to the accuracy” of that information.
“If I’m lighting a car on fire to collect the insurance and I now have to fill out paperwork, that car fire is gonna be investigated. It’ll make me think twice about this. That makes firemen safer. It limits the amount of fires. It’s another hurdle for someone who’s looking to illegally do this,” O’Shea said.
“Every one of these will be investigated. … Police and fire will be working more closely together communicating on these. … Whether it be the V.I.N. [vehicle identification number], the license plates, the city sticker or the tags on the vehicle, police and fire working together will track down whoever was the owner and, if their goal was to collect on the insurance, they’ll have to explain that.”
The new reporting requirement is patterned after a similar crackdown in Boston that resulted in an 80-percent reduction in the number of vehicle arsons.
“Those who were looking to have arson-for-profit, [the number of incidents were] reduced. The fear factor. Not wanting to go in front of investigators was enough to have those numbers decrease,” Murphy said.
Murphy can only hope for the same results in Chicago.
“Auto fires are one of the most toxic fires that a firemen can go and be involved in. … When it’s a building, it’s one thing. When it’s outside with flammable and combustible materials that cars are made of these days — the plastics and the polyurethanes — even with [breathing apparatus], they’re highly toxic events,” Murphy said.
Sergeant Richard Sliva said the Chicago Police Department’s Arson Unit responded to only 133 of the 916 vehicle fires in Chicago last year. In each case, there was either an offender on the scene or some other form of evidence, including a video.
“That leaves a big gap of people we did not talk to. By this ordinance, we’re gonna be able to talk to those people. They are gonna have to come to us,” Sliva said.
“It’s gonna be very difficult for the Fire Department as well as the Arson section to respond to 916 car fires. We’d like to, but we can’t. This will have them come to us.”
Roger Krupp, past president of the International Association of Arson Investigators, hailed the Chicago ordinance as “groundbreaking stuff” that could cause vehicle arsons to plummet, as they did in Boston.
“It’s a deterrent factor. It makes maybe some people think, ‘You know what? I’m not gonna go through this. There’s too much work to get that insurance money,’ “ Krupp said.
Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st), a former Chicago Police officer-turned-firefighter, has his fingers crossed.
“Most firemen and firehouses have what’s called an auto alley. When you get that call at night and you hear the address, you know where you’re going because someone is burning a car. And it’s pretty much burnt for illegal purposes. … Nothing’s really been done about it. Someone could just drop a car anywhere and burn it and that’s it. Nothing to worry about,” Napolitano said.
“I can’t even describe to you how toxic it is. The way these autos have changed now — the compartments are more combustible. So, you’re not just putting a car out. They’re exploding on you as you’re putting `em out. … These firemen sent to put it out — you could lose a life.”