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Fire Prevention Bureau loses duties

Stripped of virtually all their enforcement powers, their equipment and perks, officers in the county's Fire Prevention Bureau will soon be relieved of another duty.

Effective July 15, the five officers who once handled all of the county's arson investigations will no longer be allowed to go to the scene of a fire.

"I feel like I'm on a sinking ship, taking on more and more water, not knowing when the last piece will go beneath the waves," said fire prevention officer John Russo.

Fire prevention director Mike Connell said he would make no comment until after he returns from vacation.

In a memo dated June 16, county administrator Tony Shoemaker informed Sheriff Charles Dean that the bureau would no longer be involved in law enforcement-related investigations.

Shoemaker told Dean that because arson is considered a felony, the responsibility of investigating it will be turned over to the Sheriff's Office July 15.

According to the memo, Shoemaker offered to transfer two fire prevention officers to the Sheriff's Office to assist in fire investigations. Dean declined the offer.

Sheriff's spokeswoman Gail Tierney said Friday that Dean would respond to Shoemaker's memo, but only after he has been advised by the agency's attorney, Richard "Spike" Fitzpatrick.

County Commissioner Gary Bartell said Friday that he agrees with Shoemaker's decision.

"To me it's a natural line of duty for an investigative department to be under a law enforcement officer," Bartell said. "I fully support that concept."

Earlier this year, fire prevention officers were relieved of their power to investigate arsons. However, they were still responsible for going to fire scenes and conducting preliminary investigations to determine if a fire was caused by arson.

If the fire was determined to be arson, fire prevention officers were instructed to guard the fire scene until a member of the State Fire Marshals Office arrived to do the investigation.

Shoemaker informed Dean that fire prevention officers will no longer respond to any fires after July 15.

Over the past year, the county's Fire Prevention Bureau has been systematically reduced to an agency with a clouded mission and no enforcement authority.

At one time, the county's fire prevention officers were vested with full law enforcement authority. They carried service revolvers, kept an arsenal of weapons, conducted criminal investigations and made arrests.

Their job now is to conduct inspections of businesses and homes; however, if they find a violation, they don't have the power to enforce any tickets they write.