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Cities may rekindle fire task force

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Fire chiefs in Kanawha County's largest cities are in talks to restart a task force aimed at investigating suspicious fires.

The Fire Investigation Task Force actually started in April 2005 when investigators from St. Albans and Nitro started working together as part of the cities' mutual aid agreement. It expanded over the years to include Dunbar and South Charleston.

But with firefighters retiring, the task force fell into a lull and wasn't as active as it had been, said Steve Parsons, St. Albans fire chief.

The chiefs met earlier this month to discuss restarting the task force and bringing Charleston into the fold. The discussion is still in the early stages, but so far it sounds like three of the chiefs are on board.

"It's just a way to make sure things don't fall through the cracks," said Parsons, who also is a trained investigator. "It's really a win-win for every city involved."

In the past, the members of the task force, made up of investigators from Dunbar, Nitro, South Charleston and St. Albans, would help each other out on investigations when they were shorthanded or if the scene required more than one pair of hands.

For example, if Dunbar's lead investigator, Billy James, is away on vacation, Jeff Elkins, Nitro's chief and one of its two fire investigators, and Parsons could step in to investigate.

As far as how they would be paid, Parsons said in the past the investigator's municipality would "eat the cost" if the investigator was off duty and came out on overtime to help a neighboring department. He said that was done with the knowledge that the neighboring department's investigator would come to help if needed.

"It's just a trade-off," Parsons said. "It's nominal amounts of money."

Parsons said that's what the group likely would continue to do if the chiefs decided to restart the task force.  Parsons said in the past St. Albans and Nitro worked together on more than 30 investigations and an investigator from the task force had been called to Dunbar only once.

Elkins, who has been chief for only about two weeks, is a trained fire investigator and said he likes the idea of cooperation between the cities.

"Being that we're small, we can use all the hands we can get," Elkins said. "Investigations aren't easy, and it takes a lot of hands to get the job done and get the answers."

Elkins said it's a big help to the smaller cities who may have only one or two investigators on staff.

Dunbar Chief Butch Ellis said he "absolutely" thought the task force was a good idea that would help smaller departments like his.

"We don't have a whole arson division like some of the larger departments," Ellis said. "Our investigator is a regular shift firefighter."

He said James has undergone extensive training and served on the task force when it began years ago.

"It's such a good way for the guys to gain experience from each other and share their knowledge," Ellis said.

Firefighters investigate all fires — house fires, vehicle fires and even Dumpster fires. If those fires are deemed suspicious, the investigation goes further to determine the cause and culprit.

Parsons, who has been chief at St. Albans for more than 15 years, said arsons are among the hardest crimes to prove. Firefighters must undergo specialized training before they can even begin to investigate.

The task force had the approval of State Fire Marshal Sterling Lewis when it started in 2005, as many of the investigators underwent the same training as those who work for the fire marshal's office, Parsons said. Investigators from the fire marshal's office are dispatched only when there is a fatality or damages of more than $100,000.

Charleston Fire Chief Chuck Overstreet also met with the four chiefs earlier this month. Charleston was not involved with the task force in the past, and Overstreet wasn't sure if it would be this time.  

"I haven't made a decision one way or another," Overstreet said. "I think it's a good idea, and we're always looking for ways to help out the neighboring departments, but my guys are so busy."

Charleston's fire department is among the largest in the state and handles a number of fire investigations per year. The department operates its own fire prevention and investigation unit.

Overstreet said his fire investigators didn't seem receptive to the idea but would probably be available if there was a dire emergency.

"They're not desperate for help," Parsons said of Charleston. "But then again if they're out sick or on vacation and they need a hand, we could step in."

Elkins said if the Charleston firefighters decided not to join the task force, his department wouldn't be deterred.

"They've got the resources and don't really need the help, but it would help us," Elkins said. "Even if they're not interested, we're still going to do it."

The chiefs still are discussing the idea. South Charleston's fire chief was not immediately available for comment.

Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at ashley.craig@dailymail.com or 304-348-4850.


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