DETROIT - Lt. James Hill-Harris is very personally driven to investigate fires.
As a member of the Detroit Fire Department, he pursued a career as an arson investigator after his father, who was also a firefighter, was killed trying to put out a blaze that was intentionally set.
Hill-Harris' father was Walter Harris, a Detroit firefighter killed in 2008.
"My father perished as a result of an arson fire and that motivated me a lot," said Hill-Harris. "The firefighter protects the civilians, the investigators, we try to protect the firefighters."
The Detroit arson unit should have 15 investigators, but because of recent cut backs there are only nine. The investigators said they are backed up and have to prioritize which fires they investigate first. So those where someone is injured or killed get first priority.
"The financial situation doesn't allow us to have as many investigators we need. We need 100 investigators, we don't have that, we only have a fraction of it," said Hill-Harris.
Hill Harris said in some cases they have to pay for training to keep their skills up-to-date.
It was on a recent training conference that Hill-Harris and other Detroit investigators attended that he said they became the butt of the instructors jokes.
"It's no secret that Detroit is under funded and some of our training we have to do in house so we can't afford some of the sophisticated equipment and training courses that other investigators are privy too and we become the butt of jokes because of it," said Hill Harris.
Stuart Sklar, a shareholder at Fabian, Sklar and King in Farmington Hills has litigated hundreds of fire and explosion cases and is a certified fire and explosion investigator. He too was at the training conference.
"He just kept razzing them and cutting down the department," said Sklar about the instructor.
Sklar didn't like what he was hearing.
"They have a thankless job. They have probably the worst arson problem in the country, they investigate more fires per investigator than any other department in the country," said Sklar.
"These guys want to be the best and because of the budget situation in the city, they don't necessarily have the opportunity to do it," said Sklar. "I just felt very strongly about bringing this program to them so they could have the opportunity to get some of the best training in the country.
Sklar struck up a conversation with the Detroit investigators and discovered they didn't have the money to buy updated National Fire Prevention Association 921 manuals, books he describes as 'the bible' of fire investigation. So Sklar's firm donated books to the arson unit.
Hill-Harris said they were blown away by the donation.
"But he wasn't finished. That wasn't enough. He said listen, after handing us these $100 books he said 'Can I put on a seminar just for you guys? if I can bring some people from the National Association of Fire Investigators to Detroit for you guys, I know if you're hurting like this for the funds to even buy a book you can't afford the $1,000 seminar down in Florida and the cost of travel,'" said Hill-Harris.
Sklar's firm paid to fly in experts from the National Association of Fire Investigators for a two and a half day training conference. The entire unit became nationally certified in fire investigation.
Sklar said the cost to the firm was worth the outcome.
"I can't express in strong enough terms how inspiring these guys were and are, how motivated they are to be the best that they can be at what they do," said Sklar.
Lt. Hill-Harris is one of the arson investigators recently laid off from the arson unit, but he is still with the fire department. He is hoping the financial situation changes so he can resume investigating fires.
He is grateful for the donation Sklar and his firm made to the department.
"Stuart is working on his admission to sainthood at this point in my book," said Hill-Harris.
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