LEADING police and firefighters have signed a protocol to protect a unique scheme to help catch arsonists.

Cleveland has one of the highest rates for arson in the UK and Cleveland Police and Cleveland Fire Brigade have established the country’s only joint Arson Investigation Team.

The new protocol means the initiative will continue for another three years.

The number of arsons on Teesside has been reduced by 35 per cent in recent years. However, arson still accounts for about 70 per cent of all fires in the area. In 2011, there were nearly 3,000 deliberate fires in the district - but that had fallen to 2,088 by the end of 2012.

Cleveland Fire Brigade has launched a major public awareness campaign, called Enough is Enough, to drive the figures down further. The brigade is also working with academics at Teesside University to better understand the motivation of arsonists, and why the figures are so high in Cleveland.

Now Phil Lancaster, director of community protection at the brigade, and Chief Superintendent Peter McPhillips, head of crime at Cleveland Police, have signed a new three-year protocol which means the Arson Investigation Team (AIT) will continue.

The team was first established in 2005 to jointly investigate suspicious fires and it has been agreed that the investigators are worth keeping, despite both organisations facing cut-backs.

A spokeswoman for Cleveland Police explained how the AIT work. She said: “Following a blaze, expert fire investigators will establish how the fire started, how it spread and whether it was deliberate or accidental. Police scenes of crimes officers (SOCOs) will use this information to record what the scene looks like; recover forensic evidence and samples that can show any accelerants used.

“Often it’s thought that fires destroy most forms of evidence but even the smallest amount can be recovered through the Arson Investigation Team, leading to prosecutions in court."

Mr Lancaster said: ““Successful prosecution rates for arson and deliberate fire setting are low across the country. This partnership will build on our already successful work in bringing offenders to justice.”

Mr McPhillips said: “This joint approach means we are working smarter by using our expertise in both fields to reduce arson and bring offenders to justice.”

Arson in Cleveland costs tax-payers about £14m a year. Across the whole of the UK there are about 3,000 deliberate fires every week.