San Francisco's top arson investigator says his department is "woefully short" of personnel, a situation he says is harming investigations at a time when there has been an uptick in fires in the city.
"My investigators are taking a beating," said John Darmanin, captain of the city's arson task force. "They are getting burned out. They are literally getting sick."
The arson task force includes investigators from the fire and police departments and district attorney's office.
Darmanin pointed to the series of arson fires in the Castro last month as one example of how investigations are being compromised: The protocol is for fire investigators to work in pairs, but only one was able to respond.
"She was overwhelmed," Darmanin said. "Anyone would be overwhelmed. She delayed her responses to one of the fires. That isn’t good business when you can’t staff your unit to the level that is required."
Darmanin appeared at a San Francisco Fire Commission meeting Thursday night in a suit instead of a Fire Department uniform, saying he was speaking up as a private citizen.
"We’ve already compromised, on many levels, investigations to the extent that it’s not the product I want to see, not the end product that the district attorney wants to see, " he told commissioners. "We can do much better, but we need the resources."
Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said she shares Darmanin's concerns, and that the department is working to hire more arson investigators. She disagreed that the staffing shortage is hurting investigations.
“I’m not convinced that they’re being compromised. The concern I do have is the length of time that it takes to get them completed," she said after the meeting. "I think they do wonderful work out there. They work very hard, and certainly they could use more bodies out there."
At Thursday's meeting, the Fire Commission approved a tentative $350 million budget that includes requests to hire two additional arson investigators. That would mean a total of nine fire investigators on the arson task force. Darmanin says he needs 11.
"We need help now," he said. "Waiting is not good for my fire investigators, and ultimately it’s not good for fire investigations, and it’s not good for the citizens of San Francisco."