Lt. Stephen Knowles comes from a long line of firefighters.
“I followed in the footsteps of several family members who were also firefighters,” said Knowles, an arson investigator. “My father was a fireman, and I figured that is what I wanted to do.”
Certified out of high school in 1994, Knowles now holds a dual certification after graduating Aug. 28 from the Athens Regional Police Academy.
He was one of two graduates from Dawson County Public Safety and the only firefighter in the class of trained lawmen.
Jason Blackwell, a jailer with the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office, was the other local graduate. Blackwell is expected to go to the patrol division.
Knowles, on the other hand, plans to stay at the Dawson County Fire Marshal’s Office, where since May 2007 he has concentrated on fire investigations and community programs.
“When I started here two and a half years ago, that was one of the things I talked about, to go through mandate and become a certified officer,” he said.
The 408-hour basic law enforcement training course ran for 10.5 weeks and covered, among other topics, the criminal justice system, firearms and court proceedings and testimony.
As an arson investigator, Knowles may never need to use some of that information. But some of the knowledge could prove invaluable to the department, said Fire Marshal Tim Satterfield, and help bridge the gap between investigating a fire and bringing a suspect to justice.
“There are a lot of legal aspects when you’re doing an arson investigation — collecting evidence, subpoenaing witnesses, taking out warrants and issuing search warrants,” Satterfield said.
In past arson cases, the fire marshal’s office has relied on the Dawson County Sheriff’s criminal investigations division.
“CID has been very good to me. I’ve really enjoyed working with them, but they are busy with their own case loads,” said Knowles, who will continue to consult with the department on arsons.
“They have a lot of wisdom and can help me through these cases. With me doing them by myself, I’ll know the whole perspective.”
Satterfield said the time-sensitive nature of arson probes played a role in getting Knowles the training.
“If we’re interviewing someone at the scene of the fire and we don’t have a CID unit or anyone from the state fire marshal’s office, and we have a suspect, we can’t arrest him or read him his rights or possibly confiscate the evidence because we aren’t law enforcement,” Satterfield said.
Billy Thurmond, director of emergency services, said he is proud Knowles took the initiative to better himself and the department.
“It’s going to make it a lot easier for these cases to be brought to closure,” Thurmond said.