Victorian arson figures rise as forensic department’s budget shrinks

Victorian arson figures rise as forensic department’s budget shrinks

29 April 2014

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Australia — Suspicious fires have required the attendance of forensic police experts twice a day this year.

New figures show staff at Victoria Police’s Forensic Service Department attended 222 suspicious fire scenes during the first three months of this year, which equates to more than two fires a day.

This included 101 bush and grass fires and 121 suspicious structural blazes.

Sources said the fire and explosion unit’s six full-time staff were overworked and under-resourced.

The Community and Public Sector Union said the forensic department’s budget had shrunk from $5.5 million to $3.6 million over the past two years.

One source said police forensic staff were struggling “to do more with less” and there was a backlog in the analysis of evidence. “They are having to be very careful about overtime and very frugal.”

Opposition police and bushfire response spokesman Wade Noonan said arson had worsened under the Napthine government, despite its promises to stamp out the crime.

“The fact that police forensics have been called to the scene of a suspicious bush or grass fire on a daily basis throughout summer points to a growing arson crisis in Victoria.”

He said state government staff and funding cuts to police forensics would increase the risk for communities in high fire risk parts of Victoria.

The Coalition government has announced a number of initiatives to clamp down on arsonists in the wake of the Black Saturday bushfires.

These include setting up a specialist arson and explosives group within Victoria Police to target fire bugs in high risk areas and rolling out electronic monitoring bracelets for convicted arsonists.

A government spokeswoman said the government had strengthened laws to combat careless behaviour, funded two analyst positions at Victoria Police to gather and analyse information related to bushfire arson, and launched Operation Firestarter, which involves police conducting high visibility arson prevention and detection patrols during the bushfire season.

“Arson is a despicable and horrific crime that can cause serious injury or loss of life and devastate our environment, destroy homes and properties. Deliberately or recklessly lighting bushfires and grass fires will not be tolerated,” the spokeswoman said.

Victoria Police Forensic Services Department assistant director John Doherty said while the department’s operating budget had been cut, this had not affected its service.

“A reduced operating budget does not serve to reduce the capacity of the department to provide a frontline response to incidents and undertake the necessary analyses. This reduction would not lead to any increase in arson incidents.”

He said there was only a modest backlog in the delivery of casework services – and no backlog of scene investigations.

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