Answering the Alarm
Farmington Hills lawyer helps save Detroit Firefighters’ arson unit.
Ironically, it was a slow burn that caused attorney Stuart Sklar and his law firm to almost single-handedly rebuild the Detroit Fire Department’s Fire Investigation Unit.
Sklar, of Farmington Hill-based Fabian Sklar & King, which specializes in fire injury, explosion and property damage claims, was attending an International Association of Arson Investigators seminar at Oakland Community College in April, and came across seven members of the Detroit Fire Department who were attending at their own expense, including Lt. James Hill-Harris.
“Before we went to the event, we were told in our office to expect some bad treatment — that the speakers love to use the ‘Detroit guys’ as the butt of every joke,” Lt. Hill-Harris said. “The speaker immediately began making derogatory jokes about Detroit fire investigators — like, ‘Everyone else is going to do it this way … unless you’re from Detroit then you don’t do it at all,’ to the laughter of everyone in the class,” he said.
Although they spoke up for themselves, they were still the butt of most of the jokes, he said. “It was really derogatory.”
Sklar was listening, too. And seething.
“They were getting a lot of razzing and crap from people,” Sklar said, with disgust. During a break, he overheard one of the investigators talking about how the DFD didn’t even have a current edition of the National Fire Protection Association “921” guide — considered the bible for fire investigators — in their office.
“Detroit has the worst arson problem in the country,” Sklar said. “They’re faced with an impossible situation. They investigate 150 fires per investigator per year, more than anyone else in the country, and that only gets to a fraction of the fires that happen. Now they’re cutting the department in half, and there’s no way a guy can investigate 300 fires.”
He introduced himself to Lt. Hill-Harris and the group, and offered to give them some current 921 manuals from his office the next day. After all, Sklar served on the committee that wrote most of the fire codes for the manual.
The investigators were thankful, but they didn’t realize that Sklar wasn’t satisfied enough and had something else in mind.
Since the city couldn’t afford $100 for a current edition of the manual, it probably couldn’t afford $1,000 to send each investigator to get certification training, either.
Sklar, who’s spoken at other fire investigation seminars around the country, Canada and England, came up with an idea.
Why not sponsor a program for the department here in Detroit and certify their firefighters to become arson investigators?
“It was almost unbelievable,” said Lt. Hill-Harris, a firefighter for 12 years. “We had at that time only one member of our office who was certified.”
Using his connections and clout, Sklar convinced the National Association of Fire Investigators (NAFI) to hold a 20-hour program in August for one specific fire department, which was a first. He brought in fire science specialists and professors from all over the country, including the chairman of NAFI, Patrick Kennedy.
The training allowed 15 Detroit firefighters to take the certified fire and explosion investigator exam, which none of them had ever taken before, Sklar said.
“He paid for our speakers to attend, their hotel stays, food and transportation, and paid for refreshments for the attendees each day,” Lt. Hill-Harris said. Sending the firefighters to a similar seminar out of state would have cost about $30,000, but Fabian, Sklar & King picked up the tab for the entire event. “Every single member of the Detroit Arson unit passed the exam and are now certified fire and explosion investigators.
“He found out that six members of our unit wanted to attend a conference that was scheduled for the following week in Florida to become certified instructors as well,” said Lt. Hill-Harris. “When we discovered that this course was not free, as we had thought, he stepped in and covered that cost as well.
“As this was all occurring, the city of Detroit, as part of an overall financial cut plan, put forth a plan to reduce the Detroit arson unit by over 50 percent,” Lt. Hill-Harris said. “As a result of Stuart’s efforts, we were able to submit that we were certified, and now this reduction is being overturned. We are also developing a course for other fire departments in the state of Michigan to assist them in becoming certified. Stuart Sklar’s contribution may be the only reason that the Detroit arson unit has a unit in the coming years.”
Sklar, who successfully represented the families of two employees killed in December 2010 in an explosion at the William C. Franks furniture store in Wayne, Mich., said he personally handles 50 to 100 cases a year. He also appears at seminars on a regular basis. He has filmed training videos for trial testimony — how an investigator can expect to be cross-examined at a fire case. He has held mock cross-examinations and is the co-founder of a bi-annual international symposium on fire investigation science and technology.
He has trained thousands of people through the course of his career, but “I told my partners when I got back, out of all the things I’ve done, this was the most rewarding, gratifying thing just to see how appreciative they were,” he said. “At the end of the day, they’re going to be better at their job. We want them to do it right.”
By Harry Kirsbaum, Contributing Writer