This story is part of a reporting project conducted jointly by City Limits and a team of students at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.
Faced with a bare-bone staff and an increasing workload, New York City's fire marshals now conduct about a quarter of their investigations over the phone, without ever attending the scene of the fire.
"Theoretically you should go to every fire," says a fire investigator who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter. "But where are you going to get the manpower?"
Since 2002, the city has cut the number of fire marshals by about half, yet the bureau of fire investigation, the division of the fire department charged with determining the cause of fires, has seen a 17 percent increase in investigations sent to its desks.
City fire marshals say their work is suffering, as they're not able to conduct thorough interviews and are falling behind on their paperwork.
"Where before it used to be the first day you'd get the case and the second day you'd follow up, now they're getting a new case every day," the investigator says. "It's harder to do follow up interviews and then guys fall behind."
Arsons made up 33 percent of the fires investigated by fire marshals according to the latest BFI report, but it's likely the rates are higher. Without physically investigating all fires, arsons across the city are going unidentified and uninvestigated.
"It's not arson until you say it is," says the fire investigator. "Someone needs to physically go. I guarantee if you go out there you'll get more arsons."
To cope with the growing workload, fire marshals are conducting more investigations over the phone, without ever attending the scene of the fire. In conversations between the fire company and the fire marshal dispatcher, these calls outline the suspected cause of the fire, and if all signs point to the same accidental cause, no investigator is dispatched.
Termed "preliminary investigations only", these phone-call only reports have increased tenfold from 105 in 2008 to 1,949 last year, up 36 percent of the bureau's total caseload, according to the latest BFI annual report.
But while some cases are cut and dry—a pot burning on the stove turns out to be just that—other investigations are more complex.
The investigator recalled a call he received about a suspected electrical fire.
"Even though someone says that it was just some extension cords," the investigator says, "I remember going there and there was a kid playing with matches."
At the time of publication, the FDNY had not yet commented on this article.
Graphics by Ross Keith.
Read the CUNY J-School team's full report
on arson in New York City, then and now.