Fire chiefs take team approach to arson investigations

Area fire chiefs hope a newly created team of investigators from various county departments will lead to standardized arson investigations and more successful prosecutions.

Dubbed the Fire Scene Investigators, or FSI, the team currently comprises 25 firefighters from the Burton Fire District, Beaufort Fire Department, Fripp Island Fire Department, Lady's Island-St. Helena Fire District and Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort Fire Department. Additions are expected soon from the Sheldon Fire District and Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island Fire Department. The Bluffton Fire Department and Hilton Head Fire and Rescue have their own fire investigation teams.

The team was the brainchild of Burton Fire Chief Henry Rountree.

"We want to make sure that every scene is dealt with in the same manner and that nothing gets missed," Rountree said. "We need to make sure that the end product is a solid investigation that assists in the prosecution of whomever started the fire."

Lady's Island-St. Helena Fire Chief Bruce Kline said the team -- which was recently called to a suspicious fire last week in Seabrook -- has allowed firefighters to work more closely with area law enforcement.

"There are other programs like ours in the state, but I don't know that there are any as involved as ours," Kline said. "We have the Sheriff's Office involved, we have (the Beaufort Police Department) involved and we have the Solicitor's Office involved. The team concept has allowed us to put our individual expertise from each department into one group."

Beaufort's team is modeled after a similar program in Spartanburg County. Rountree said he was not sure how much it will cost to create and train the teambut added all departments would share in the cost of training their firefighters and sending them to suspected arson sites.

Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said the work done by his investigators and members of FSI wouldproduce more concrete arson investigations.

"Arson investigations are often difficult within themselves," he said. "With this new coalition of firefighters, law enforcement officers and prosecutors, we can look at a suspicious fire and approach that scene methodically. The end result, of course, is a successful prosecution."