By Jordyn Grzelewski
Twenty-five years ago, a group of men recognized a need for greater cooperation between area fire departments that were struggling to handle an onslaught of arsons.
The Metro Arson Strike Force, which Monday celebrated its 25th anniversary with an event at the Western Reserve Joint Fire District’s main fire station in the village of Poland, was borne out of that need. The force, which is headquartered out of an old fire station on South Avenue, is made up of 20-plus members who represent area fire departments.
It responds selectively, to cases such as commercial-building fires, fatal fires and fires that cause significant damage. Its purpose is to assist on cases in which local fire departments might need resources beyond what they can provide for themselves.
Two dozen or so past and present members gathered to reminisce about the force’s early years during the height of Youngstown’s high-crime era in the 1990s, as well as its growth into a cooperative, wide-ranging organization since then.
“We quickly found out that we had a severe arson problem, not only in Youngstown, but in the surrounding areas,” said Bob Sharp, who helped found the group while working for the city’s fire-investigation unit.
He and other longtime members recalled the group’s early years as hectic and obstacle-ridden, but ultimately rewarding.
The volunteer group at first focused its efforts on the city and adjacent communities. Over time, it grew to include members from across the Mahoning Valley, but not without some push back from departments that at first were hesitant to sign on, members said.
A factor in its growth, Sharp said, was a huge demand for its services. He recalled a time when the city fire department would regularly get called out for three to four arsons each night.
“From 1989 to 1996, everything was going on in Youngstown. It was just a cesspool of fires,” he said.
David “Chip” Comstock Jr., an early strike-force member and current WRJFD chief, recalled one harrowing incident shortly after the group formed. During a stakeout in Youngstown, someone shot at a strike-force member, he said.
There was a sharp learning curve for the original members, they said, but over the years, they improved with help from agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, state fire marshal and county sheriff’s department.
“One of the things we bring to the table ... is there are so many facets that need to be done relatively quickly [during an arson investigation] – information-gathering, scene overview, you’re always looking at cause and origin,” said force commander Lee Ingold. “Even if you have a trained investigator, we bring manpower. We can bring equipment not normally kept by a fire department.”
The group also improved bigger-picture outcomes, members said. The reason it originally formed was to facilitate better communication between departments, a goal members believe it’s achieved.
“For the first time in memory, there was unbelievable cooperation” between departments,” said Dan Lewis, a longtime firefighter and police officer.
Another reason the group operates – without compensation – is more personal, Ingold said.
“It’s bad enough when a firefighter has to go into a burning building, but when it’s been set intentionally, that’s when we’re going to go after them,” he said.
“It was a unique circumstance with the right people coming together, and I’m happy to see it 25 years later,” Sharp said.