Within a matter of weeks, state fire investigators will have a new set of video surveillance cameras dedicated to solving arsons across the state.
National insurance company State Farm on Monday awarded the state Fire Marshal’s Office a $15,000 grant to purchase the cameras.
The technology has been in use for decades, but the new cameras will have larger capacities, better quality footage and “will be less intensive from a manpower standpoint,” said Deputy Chief Brant Thompson, spokesperson with the State Fire Marshal’s Office.
“If we have incidents of arson or high-arson crime areas, we will deploy that camera equipment to that area,” Thompson said. “We do that currently, but our technology is not what it should be.”
Some of the cameras used in the past required investigators to physically download the footage on-site, while the new equipment will have remote access and longer battery life.
Older cameras are already set up in “several communities throughout the state,” although Thompson would not disclose where, and he also declined to divulge further information about how many cameras are on the way and how they function.
But he said similar technology has already helped investigators nab at least two accused serial arsonists in recent years.
Felician Joseph “Fish” Primeaux, 59, was booked in February 2012 after a camera implicated him in a vacant house fire in Kaplan, Thompson said.
Primeaux was later charged with 12 counts of simple arson for fires set from 2010-12 in Vermilion Parish, including the destruction of the Kaplan Rice Mill.
“When we decided to deploy camera equipment there, it was almost instantly that we were able to apprehend the gentleman,” Thompson said.
Primeaux’s arson trial was put on hold when he was admitted to the Eastern Louisiana Mental Health System in Jackson. A sanity commission found him incompetent to stand trial on charges of obscenity and molestation of a juvenile lodged against him in 2011.
A year-and-a-half after Primeaux’s arrest, cameras were deployed in neighborhoods along La. 10 in New Roads after seven fires were set in a matter of 48 hours.
Although one of the fires was deemed accidental, a New Roads teenager implicated by the cameras confessed to setting the fires — along with another half-dozen in the years prior, Thompson said.
“He made a full confession to setting those fires — and other fires they were not aware of — and provided great detail to how he accomplished that,” Thompson said.
Nickolas Powell, now 21, is awaiting trial in the Pointe Coupee Parish jail, where he’s been held since his September 2013 arrest on 10 counts of simple arson and one count of aggravated arson.
Authorities investigate around 800-850 fires each year, and it’s estimated about 30 percent of those fires are the works of arsonists, Thompson said.
State Farm has been providing grants to fire agencies nationwide since 1993 and has previously funded three of nine dogs working for the State Fire Marshal’s Office. The dogs are capable of detecting fire accelerant along with human scent trails.
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825