Photo by Corinne Nicholson
COVINGTON -- A unique blending of the Covington Fire Department and the Covington Police Department has taken place with the certification of CFD Capt. Tony Smith as a CPD officer.
"This is new. It's something the city has never done before, never had a mandated fireman," Smith said just after completing 11 weeks of training and being sworn in as a CPD officer. "I'm the first dual-certified employee the city has ever had. We're treading into some new water."
Smith is the assistant fire marshal for the city, in charge of code enforcement issues and fire investigations. But, in the past, when a determination was made that a fire had been intentionally set, as a fireman, Smith was limited in how far he could take the investigation before turning it over to CPD detectives.
Officials believe that having Smith certified as a police officer will make things more efficient.
"Tony has had a long career with the Fire Department and has a history on the investigative side ... in talking with Chief (Don) Floyd, it just made sense that he got to go to the academy," CPD Chief Stacey Cotton said. "Arson is not just a fire crime. It's a crime. We wanted to close any gaps in the investigative process and how the cases are presented in court. We didn't want an arsonist to elude law enforcement because of a gap in jurisdictional responsibility. He's a fireman and it's his duty to be a fireman, but he's now a Covington fireman that has arrest powers and that gives him the ability to fully investigate an arson."
Smith said he is excited about what the future may bring.
"I look forward to it. I appreciate the city, Chief Cotton and Chief Floyd for allowing me the opportunity to do it," he said.
Over the next few weeks, he plans to be working with Cotton's CID detectives, learning how they write reports and how they prepare cases for court.
"In turn, when I actually do an investigation, I will prepare it the same way as one of his investigators would prepare it, so that when it goes to the DA, everything will be the same. We want it foolproof," Smith said.
He said experience has taught him that speed is of the essence when investigating an arson.
"Any crime you want to solve quick ... but you can have a burglary and if you have to wait two or three days while you're working on other cases, you can go back to it and nothing is really lost," he said. "But when a fire happens, you have to handle it right then and you have to stay on it until it's done. Evidence can be destroyed, the owners of the home or car can be gone. Arson is more timely."
He said the key to any arson investigation is to determine the motive -- whether the fire was set for revenge or if there was a need for financial gain from insurance. And then for those who are what he calls "true-blue arsonists," their motive is the excitement of the blaze.
"They're addicted to it. They'll continue to do it until they get caught. It's an addiction as bad as a drug addiction," he said.
He said with an arson investigation, you don't just have to prove what did start the fire, but an investigator has to show what didn't start it.
"Even if you find evidence of an accelerant, you still have to rule out every accidental cause," he said. "You still have to prove the electrical was intact ... the gas lines were intact ... you have to show the only other logical thing is that it had to be deliberate."
Smith said fire scenes each have their own story to tell.
"It's kind of quirky, but I always say fire will talk to you if you know what to listen for. Fire will explain itself to you," he said.
Smith said mandate school handed him very few surprises, as he's had a close working relationship with CPD detectives for many years.
He was hired by the Covington Fire Department in 1996 and has come up through the ranks. Born and bred in Newton County, Smith is a graduate of Newton County High School and attended Georgia College at Milledgeville. For several years, he owned and operated a landscaping business before going to work for his father-in-law at Gwinnett Sprinkler where he supervised the installation of fire hydrants, lines, pipes for sprinklers and similar equipment.
"I had a buddy that got hired over here in Covington. We volunteered in Walton County, and I'd always kinda had the itch," he recalled. "My buddy kept talking and kept talking and finally got me. I filled out an application and was hired."
He's been in the fire marshal's office since 2004.
Smith is married to Shannon and is the father of four girls -- Alex, a sophomore at the University of Georgia; Chandler a sixth-grader; Gracie, a fifth-grader; and Emma a first-grader.
"I was allowed to get a male dog, but other than that, there's no other male companionship at my house. I hang out with the dog a lot," he quipped.