Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Visit From an Arson Inspector

Here I am with Captain Deberra Schroeder
A little over a week ago our Sisters in Crime chapter NEOSinC had a visit from Captain Deberra Schroeder. She’s the only female fire captain in the Cleveland Fire Department, and was one of the first ten women firefighters hired in Cleveland. By the way, she said all of them should be called firefighters and not firemen no matter what the sex. As an arson investigator, Captain Schroeder is both a Cleveland Firefighter and a Cleveland Police Officer. We found Debbie not only very informative, but someone with a sense of humor, and willing to answer almost all of our questions, being careful not to give us details about any ongoing investigations.

There have been 440 fires investigated so far this year.  Although, she’s the captain now, she still sometimes goes out to investigate when needed.  The first thing to check is O&C – origin and cause. She listens to all the messages between the first responders and then talks to the occupants and anyone who has to leave. If someone has been seriously injured, she goes to the hospital first for his or her statement.  It’s also important to write good run reports and sheets. After they investigate for arson, and decide it is, the Crime Stoppers are called in. I assume they are criminal investigators.

She told about a case when she wasn’t yet a captain, and she was with her boss. They went upstairs in a burning building checking for anyone in there and then headed for the attic which was not very big. She was on a ladder chopping holes in the wall. It was hot, and she was breathing in smoke, and was afraid. She wanted to turn around and leave, but she couldn’t leave her partner to go up there alone. I don’t remember if she said the fire had gotten up there or not, but she was so relieved to finally leave that area and get back outside. Her boss commended her for sticking with him and not leaving.
You must go online to see the videos.

Another fire she told us a little about was a large fire in downtown Cleveland in a tall apartment building over a restaurant. The fire had started in the 8th floor penthouse apartment. Fortunately, no one was at home in the apartment where it started, and not one of the fifty-five occupants in the forty-two units was injured although they were affected by the fire. They had no sprinkler systems in any of the apartments. She suggested that we Google 150 Prospect Fire in Cleveland to learn more about it, which I did to get the picture of it. What an incredibly scary fire that was. I not only found pictures, I watched videos of it. The fire was under investigation, but I don’t know if it still is. Any apartment building arson fire is labeled an aggravated arson. So far this year there have been twenty-one cases of aggravated arson in the Cleveland area.

There is no typical age of an arsonist. The investigators check cell phone records and bank statements of suspects to see if the owner of the house is in heavy debt and the house is insured.

She said many arsonists are stupid. For instance, the investigators check the gas stations closest to the house that had been set afire. A recent one had video surveillance of a guy, she called Smokey, filling up a gallon jug of gasoline, and he went inside to pay for it. The jug was found outside the house where he burned the apartment with a body in it. Needless, to say, he was caught.

Because we are writers, one of our members asked her to describe what the smell would be like and what would it sound like. She said that house fires generally smell like a campfire, but a car fire smells nastier like burning plastic and rubber. A house fire sounds like a freight train.  
This is not Debbie, of course.

She ended the evening telling us how she was recently the victim of an attempted carjacking at a local grocery store parking lot. She’d just left the grocery store and was heading to the gas station in the same parking area. She was talking on her phone and just creeping along, and then stopped to finish her call before heading into the gas station to get gas. She’d just hung up when the passenger door opened and a masked guy in a hoodie was pointing his gun at her. He demanded she give him her keys and her phone or he’d shoot her. She told us all the things that went through her head in those few brief moments with a guy threatening her with a gun. She’d miss her grandchildren’s birthdays coming up. Her husband would never find all her paper work. Her gun was in her purse behind her seat, and she couldn’t reach it. Then her police mode kicked in. She reached her left arm down beside her seat, and then turned to him pointing a finger at him shouting “Police! Police! I have a gun, too!” in her loudest police officer’s voice. The guy turned and ran away. She followed him with her Jeep to see where he’d go while calling 911 for police backup. The guy joined another guy and they headed down a drive beside a bank across the road and were gone by the time the police got there.

Several days later, they carjacked another car belonging to an elderly woman. She tossed them the key fob, but not her keys, grabbed her purse and ran. They were caught several days later. Debbie shakes her head and says most crooks are stupid.

Have you ever witnessed a house or apartment fire?

Have you ever been a victim of a robbery or a carjacking?


Margaret S. Hamilton said...

robbery, yes. Carjacking, no. I'm so careful at the gas station, locking the doors and hanging my purse over my shoulder while I pump gas. And I am thankful that the only fire we've had was a minor kitchen fire. Which reminds me to buy a new fire extinguisher. Thanks to you for all you do.

E. B. Davis said...

I like that Debbie clued you into the correct terminology to use, Gloria. That was very helpful. Can you imagine the car robber thinking of all the cars--he chose a cop's car! Serendipity wins. Thanks for the report. I've been lucky. No robberies, but I had a dryer fire once. Not a good experience, and I found out how much smoke window screens keep in the house. The firefighters removed the screens to clear the smoke from the house.

Gloria Alden said...

Margaret, I have a fire extinguisher some place, but it's so old I don't know if it still works. I have a purse I've carried for years because I can put it over my head to the opposite shoulder making it harder to get a hold off. Of course, I suppose a really nasty person could drag the purse and me along with them.

E.B. yes, she was informative and helpful for writers who may write about a fire someday. I'm not a fearful person, but the one thing that does worry me is having a house fire and losing everything. So far any fires were outside, that were easily contained.

Warren Bull said...

We had an arson investigator and her dog at one SIC meeting. They were great.

Grace Topping said...

We once had a house fire that occurred while we were on vacation. Fortunately, a three-year-old boy noticed the smoke coming from our roof and told his mother. Our attic fan had shorted out and caused a fire. If it hadn't been for that little boy, our house would have gone up in flames. We only had to replace the roof and fan, and repair the front door where the firemen had broken through to get to the attic. We were very lucky!! One of our friends wasn't so lucky, and her house burned to the ground when they were away. A fax machine had caused the fire. So if you travel, make sure to turn your fax machine off.

Jim Jackson said...

Once when I was young and at my grandparents’ farm, the barn of the farm up the road caught fire. The noise was huge! As was the heat from all the hay. Fortunately, it was after the evening milking and the cows were all out in the fields.

While I was at college and living in downtown Albany, NY an apartment a few streets behind me caught fire in the middle of the night. No one was hurt, but it took them a long time to control the fire. Several of the trucks made sure the first didn’t spread to adjacent buildings.

~ Jim

Gloria Alden said...

Warren, I wasn't aware that arson investigator's used dogs, but it does make sense. Dogs have an incredible sense of smell.

Grace, I don't have a fax machine, but once I heard all toasters should be unplugged after using so I do that. I also never leave my house when the dryer is on, and not relating to a fire, but I turn the knobs to off on the hoses going to the washing machine, because I've heard if the hoses spring a link, they'll flood your house. I also rarely light candles in case I forget they're on and maybe the cats will knock them over or something. I have had some close calls in forgetting that I have something cooking on the stove and it boils dry.

Paula Gail Benson said...

Gloria, what a fascinating post!
A few years ago, my car caught fire in the basement garage under the building where I work. I had arrived first thing in the morning, so it shut down the garage for a few hours. I got a rental car before heading to court. When I walked in, the first thing I heard was the judge saying, "This has been an incendiary case." I almost left. Fortunately everything about the case and my car turned out well.

Gloria Alden said...

Jim, that was two large fires you've witnessed. Fortunately, I haven't witnessed any. Something like that would stick in your memory for a long time or even forever.

Paula, how upsetting that must have been. I'm glad everything turned out well eventually.

KM Rockwood said...

What a great speaker for your group! Especially with new information that has come to light.

Arson investigation has been turned on its head in the past few years, leading to overturning of cases based on "junk science" that has been shown to be erroneous. What investigators "knew," until recently, was often wrong! Anyone writing crime fiction that may include arson needs to be aware of the new information.

Here's an article that outlines some of the developments:

Gloria Alden said...

Thanks, KM. I'll check that out in case I decide to include arson in any future books. I'm sure she knows all these things, but she was limited in time. I know we weren't ready to let her go, and I think she could have talked on and on, but the library was closing.

Shari Randall said...

This is great information, Gloria. What an interesting SinC meeting!
I had a radio stolen from my car many many years ago when I was working at a newspaper. The thieves? Two 12-year-old boys. The newspaper photographer caught them and called the police. One started crying when the police officer came and called their moms. The other boy put on a stony face. The police officer asked what I wanted to do. I got my radio back so I said just an apology. The boy who cried apologized. The other, at the urging of his mother, wouldn't. And he was the one that the photographer said was the ringleader!

Gloria Alden said...

Shari, one of my son's bicycles was stolen years and years ago. The local police officer who came out looked at the bicycle that was the same as the one that was stolen and then wrote the serial number down. Even before I became a mystery writer, I knew that was ridiculous, but I didn't say anything. The bicycle was never recovered. Probably because if they came across it somewhere, the serial number didn't match. You have to wonder what happened to that boy who was the ringleader. Did he go on to become a criminal or not.