Latest in the fight against arson

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives employees try to put out a fire set up for a demonstrative investigation in Ammendale, Maryland in November 2003.

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MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: Here's a bad news, good news story. Fires set on purpose could cause more than $500 million in property losses this year. The good news? That's less than half the amount a decade ago. Jen Banbury shows us some of the tools used in the fight against arson.


JEN BANBURY: You have to be pretty desperate or stupid to try arson-for-profit these days. So many people will try to catch you: Firefighters, Fire Marshals, cops with accelerant-sniffing dogs . . . and those are just the official responders. The people with the biggest financial motivationto stamp out arson are the insurance companies.

At Chubb Insurance in Warren, New Jersey, they have a fire lab where they cook up a little of their own benign arson.

RICHARD LUONGO:"What I'm going to do now is I'm going to go in there and set a fire. All right, tell my kids I love them."

Richard Luongo is on his way into the heart of the lab, a fire-proof room with tempered-glass viewing windows.

[Richard Luongo: "I usually set the fire."

Victor Sordillo: "And I put him out when he catches on fire."]

Luongo runs Chubb's fire lab with Victor Sordillo. They yuk it up a little like an old married couple, but they do take their work very seriously.

Insurance companies have found that improved "front end" technology — things like fire-proof building materials, smoke detector systems — have drastically reduced arson by making it way too hard for a fire to get going.

Today at Chubb they're testing a "control and suppression system," a high-tech sprinkler head.

Rich Luongo goes in the fire proof room, lights a very large pan of alcohol. Vic Sordillo watches the rising thermometer.

SORDILLO: "And you see it going up now because the fire's burning you can see the flames in the pan. When it reaches about 170, 180 degrees you're going to see that open up . . . and there it is."

The sprinkler pumps out over 30 gallons of water a minute and the fire starts to die right away.

Luongo says there are over 800 different kinds of sprinkler heads on the market and together form a multi-billion dollar industry. Chubb maintains this test lab just to keep track of all that innovation.

Charlie Bardong heads the New York Insurance Frauds Bureau. He says, yes, sprinklers do a lot. Unless they're sabotaged.

CHARLIE BARDONG:"However you use an accelerant and you compromise some of the fire suppression equipment on the scene, that building's going to burn down."

But what if sprinkler technology could outpace arsonists? What if there came a time where sprinkler technology got so good . . .

BANBURY:" . . . it would be impossible for someone to disable it, I mean wouldn't something like that go a long way toward, what why are you laughing?"BARDONG: "Perfect world. If we could make bullets not work we could really have a good world."

But in the arson arms race, all the insurers really have to do is stay ahead.

In New York, I'm Jen Banbury for Marketplace.

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