ROME (AP) — Fifteen firefighters in Sicily are suspected of deliberately setting fires or having friends or family call in false alarms so they could be called to work and earn money, police said Monday, announcing the arrest of the alleged ringleader.
The 15 firefighters are volunteers, but when called in off-duty they receive 10 euros (nearly $12) an hour in compensation from the Italian government.
Ragusa, Sicily, police official Antonino Ciavola said the fire department's command center tipped off authorities that one squad of off-duty firefighters was being disproportionally called to fight fires.
"Compared with 40 interventions from one squad, these volunteers were doing 120, sparking grumbling among some and the desire to join them by others, so they could get more money," Ciavola said in a statement.
One of the 15 was put under house arrest, while the others were allowed to stay free.
Police said sometimes the suspects called the national phone number for fire emergencies; other times they enlisted friends or relatives. Other times, the suspects allegedly set fire to trash containers or land in the countryside.
But Ciavola said the suspects were so greedy, they became careless, using their own phones to report fires. Other times, he said, relatives and friends used the same phone number to call in fires, but gave operators different names.
Investigators said the alleged ringleader was particularly bold. "With the complicity of the other volunteers, while on duty, with his own car, he left the fire station to set a fire or call in a false alarm, then went back to the station and waited for dispatchers to order them to fight the blaze, Ciavola said.
Investigators contend the scheme went on from 2013 to 2015.
The Mediterranean island usually experiences very dry summers, making it easy for fires to catch hold.