Investigators get new capabilities

Photo by Tony Kukulich

Fire Marshal Steve Aubert, seen here, will become one of the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District’s sworn peace officers. The designation provides the ability to detain, question and arrest suspects.

The East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD) Fire Board recently approved a plan to assign sworn peace officer status to the district’s fire marshal, deputy fire marshal and fire investigator positions.

Drawing a distinction between fire investigators and inspectors, the peace officer designation will afford investigators capabilities not currently available to the district’s fire inspectors. These will include the ability to detain, question and arrest suspects; book suspects into jail; bring charges to the district attorney and issue subpoenas.

“The main benefit is that it changes our ability to have further access to information regarding contacts we make in the field,” said ECCFPD Fire Marshal Steve Aubert. “Right now, as a non-peace officer working with our allied police agencies, they can’t share information about anyone we may make contact with. We don’t know if a person has previously been arrested for fires, or if this is a brand new one that no one knows about. As peace officers, we’ll be able to share information, look at the background of these people and be able to process them accordingly.”

Prior to 2019, fire investigations within ECCFPD’s borders were handled under contract by the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District (ConFire). ConFire ended that contract in 2018, leaving the district to develop its own fire prevention bureau, which is headed by Aubert and includes the district’s fire inspectors. While the district has worked in close collaboration with local law enforcement agencies to determine the cause and origin of fires, the process has not been without its challenges, said Aubert in a presentation to the district’s board of directors. Carrie Nash, vice president of the ECCFPD Fire Board, echoed that sentiment.

“Our current method of collaborating with local law-enforcement has proven challenging,” Nash said. “Police counterparts in Brentwood, Oakley and the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office do not have the certifications to determine the cause and origin of fires or explosions, leaving multiple felony fires with no charges filed. The situation affects response times and the ability to apprehend and prosecute arson cases, both potentially having dire consequences for our community’s safety. The incorporation of sworn peace officers into the prevention bureau will allow for increased service levels to the citizens of East Contra Costa Fire Protection District.”

An incident that occurred in July 2019 exemplifies the district’s need for the ability to file charges, explained Aubert. In that incident, a Knightsen man using a metal grinder in dry grass sparked a blaze that threatened lives while also damaging or destroying buildings, vehicles and other items across two properties. Aubert said there was no evidence the man intended to start the fire. However, he acted in a negligent manner that resulted in a threat to lives and property, meeting the definition of a felony. No charges were filed in that case.

“Once we submit charges, it’s up to the district attorney if they want to take the case,” Aubert said. “We need to get (an investigation) to the point that we have enough information that meets the definition (of a crime), then it’s our duty and responsibility to present it to the district attorney, and let them take their steps from that point on.”

District personnel with a sworn peace officer designation will be authorized to carry a firearm while on duty after completing a background check, psychological exam, range training and certified training regarding the use of force. While the designation is new for this district, it is not uncommon.

“Sworn office status is not unique to us at all,” Aubert said. “There are many different agencies up and down the state that share the same powers when it comes to investigating fires.”

The move brings a first-year cost for the district of $32,377. Looking out six years, ongoing annual expenditures vary between approximately $19,000 and $34,000 depending upon anticipated training costs in any given year. The bureau’s expenses are offset by fees the district charges to provide safety inspections. According to the district’s analysis, the move to incorporate sworn officers will not impact the bureau’s cost-neutral position.

The district currently employs two fire inspectors in addition to Aubert’s position as fire marshal. A deputy fire marshal position has been approved by the fire board but has not yet been filled. Aubert estimates that it will take about six months for any inspector who volunteers to become an investigator to complete the necessary training.

“As the fire chief, I strive to work with the fire board to improve and enhance the tools and resources our personnel have to be efficient at their respective jobs,” said ECCFPD Fire Chief Brian Helmick. “Historically, ECCFPD has had to rely on outside law enforcement agencies to complete our fire investigations. Advancing to sworn peace officers, prevention personnel will now have the legitimate authority to see investigative processes through, independently of other law enforcement agencies. Once district personnel have peace officer and sworn capabilities, ECCFPD will be more efficient in all aspects of fire investigations.”