When a house is on fire, firefighters race toward the flames. But they aren’t the only ones. Right behind them are workers in a little-known industry who offer traumatized homeowners what is known as emergency mitigation services. These are the crews that will board up and secure broken doors and windows and help head off further smoke and water damage.

The work is known as “chasing fires,” and at fires all over Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, that is where you would find Jatiek Smith, 33 years old in 2019 and recently released from prison for a drug conviction. He dove into this hyper-intense new job, he said, chasing fires and the promise of a straight paycheck. He spent long nights sitting in his parked car in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn, listening to his emergency scanner, eager to be the first chaser on the scene.

His boss had taught him how to immediately find the homeowner in a crowd of people outside a burning home: Look at everyone’s feet. The person in slippers or barefoot — they ran out in a hurry.

“Is everyone OK?” he’d ask, first thing. “Everyone got out?” His boss taught him that, too: Act concerned. Never ask how they’re doing. They’re not doing well.

Then Mr. Smith would stride with purpose toward the nearest fire marshal or ranking officer on the scene. Whether they answered his questions didn’t really matter. It made him look like he belonged there, like he was important.

His employer’s name was on his red uniform’s shirt: First Response. I’m here to help, he’d explain. He wouldn’t mention his company’s services — not yet. He’d simply offer help.

Gently, when the time was right, a form would appear in his outstretched hand. A retainer. This won’t cost you a dime, he’d explain. It comes out of your insurance. Just sign here and we’ll get to work.

He was good at chasing fires and had the salary to prove it. But Mr. Smith was able to secure so many of those homeowners’ valuable signatures because he had much more than a secret weapon, prosecutors have now charged. He had a whole arsenal.

He single-handedly remade the emergency mitigation industry in New York through intimidation and fear and brute force, prosecutors charged. And he did this by recruiting, to work by his side, his friends from his past: the Bloods, the notorious street gang in which he had once been a leader.

A Brooklyn woman described how doing business with this company unfolded for her. One night in March 2020, she received the call that no landlord wants to hear: one of her apartments was on fire.

The landlord, Carmen — who declined to share her last name, for fear of retribution — raced to the block in Crown Heights where she owns a small, six-unit building. The whole drive over, her phone was blowing up from an unknown number, calls she ignored.

When she arrived, she saw what you would expect — firefighters, police cars with their lights flashing, her other tenants gaping up at the smoke. But there were also several men in matching red shirts, all marked First Response. They were the ones who had found her number so quickly and had been calling her on the drive over.

“There were four or five of them there — I was pretty much surrounded by them,” Carmen said in a recent interview.

“They were like, ‘We’re accustomed to doing this, we’ve done this before,’” she recalled. One of the men introduced himself: Jatiek Smith.

He and the others explained that their job was to sweep up debris after a fire, and air out, board up and seal damaged homes.

“It was a traumatic situation,” she said. “I signed with them because they told me they could take care of everything. They said, ‘Don’t worry, everything’s good.’”

Ultimately, she said they botched the job. “They completely gutted the apartment, which I felt it didn’t really need,” she said. “They said the smoke was in the walls. All my floors, they completely ripped them up. Everything down to the beams.”

When they rebuilt the walls, they failed to replace the insulation. When one worker fell from his own ladder, he sued her.

“They’re sort of like ambulance chasers,” Carmen said, “but they’re fire-truck chasers.”

And yet, an indictment and reams of filings in federal court in New York suggest that things could have gone much worse with First Response. No one struck her, no one threatened her and no one was assaulted on her property.

Born in 1984, Jatiek Smith went on to build a long arrest record, with convictions for assault, harassment, weapons and drug charges. He was 20 years old when he went to prison after a criminal sex act conviction involving a minor in 2005. After his release three years later, he returned to prison in 2014 for three more years after a drug arrest and conviction.

Following that release, he was hired by First Response, based on Staten Island. He started work in October 2019.

Almost immediately, Mr. Smith recruited several members of the Bloods and taught them to sign more and more fires at any cost, prosecutors charged.

“Don’t you know that First Response runs the street?” an employee of the company told a rival after assaulting him.

In May 2020, First Response employees beat the owner of a rival company at the owner’s own storage facility. His attackers brazenly photographed him after the beating — Mr. Smith kept a picture of the bloodied man on his phone. This was routine; the company’s employees often documented their assaults, prosecutors said. A November 2020 beating of a rival associate by First Response was recorded on a video that spread as a warning throughout the lightly regulated industry.

“I got 13-year-old kids out here looking to make a name for themselves,” Mr. Smith warned employees at one of a half-dozen or so rival mitigation-response companies in 2021, according to court filings. “I’ll give them a gun, they can kill you or your family.”

At the scene of a fire in May 2021 in Queens, Mr. Smith grabbed an employee of a rival public adjuster and put him in a headlock. Another time, he regaled a homeowner, chuckling, with a gruesome story about having his teeth knocked out in prison — seemingly to intimidate the homeowner, prosecutors said.

Over time, First Response created new rules for companies responding to fires. Under these rules, First Response would sign at least the first 10 fires per month, and only then allow rivals to step in, prosecutors said. The other companies were allowed to sign fires on a rotating basis. Further, rivals were required to pay First Response a portion of their income. Several individuals who work for First Response’s competitors were contacted for this article and declined to comment.

Mr. Smith explained the new system to competitors in a 2020 video, according to court documents. “Get your guns and come out and play, because I ain’t going to be diplomatic,” he dared, adding a curse. “I’ll kill one of your kids just to send a message.”

A veteran in the industry said in an interview that the work became too dangerous.

He said he quit chasing because of First Response. “They threatened me too,” he said, insisting on anonymity for fear of retribution.

He recalled arriving at a fire in College Point, Queens, and was later approached by First Response. “They basically told me, ‘We got this.’ Someone had to explain to me what ‘We got this’ means. ‘You better walk away from the job.’” He said that other companies fell in line with the rotation schedule for catching fires because they saw no other choice.

In 2021, after a call to the authorities from an insurance company reporting First Response, federal agents obtained permission to place wiretaps on several phones, including Mr. Smith’s. These recordings would become the spine of the criminal case.

On June 28, 2022, an indictment was unsealed, and Mr. Smith was arrested in Puerto Rico, where he resisted, telling officers, “You are going to have to kill me.” He tried to break one of his phones before officers could seize it, prosecutors said.

He has remained incarcerated in Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center, awaiting a trial.

In a statement announcing the charges last year, Damian Williams, Manhattan’s top federal prosecutor, said, “We are smoking out corruption and violence in the fire mitigation industry,” and said that members of First Response “used threats and violence to take over a company, and then an industry.”

First Response still has an active website but did not respond to phone messages seeking comment. A man identified as the company’s owner in court documents, and who has not been charged with a crime, did not respond to calls or text messages.

In an interview from jail, Mr. Smith said he was a victim, not an aggressor: “I was the one trying to stop this violence out here.”

He said that when he first took the job after prison, he was warned by the man who hired him that it was a violent industry. “He told me about the fights,” he said. “He told me basically this was a dog-eat-dog industry. You had to use violence to get fires.”

He said he was tested early at a fire. “A few guys accosted me and wanted to fight,” he said. “I said, ‘Look, I’m here to work.’ Telling me to get off the fire. I didn’t budge. I have an ego problem. I let them know, I’m not backing down to anybody. ‘Whatever you do, you better kill me.’”

Mr. Smith said that word spread of that exchange, and he developed a tough-guy reputation. He was earning more than he ever had, bringing home more than $125,000 one year, he said. “And I wasn’t worried about going to jail,” he said. “It was great for me.”

He does not deny his past gang ties — his prison nickname was “Bad Blood” — but said he is no longer an active member.

Of course he knows members of the gang, he said: “When police officers retire, they still know police officers.” He said the violence in the industry predates his arrival, and that his prosecution is based on his gang background.

“The headline looks better when you say a bunch of Bloods did this,” he said. “Careers look better when you put a bunch of Bloods in jail.”

The veteran public adjuster who said First Response intimidated him that day in College Point said the work did change after the arrests in this case. But he added that regulations need to be put in place to create some control over the Wild West emergency mitigation industry.

“It’s very civil now and very safe now,” he said. “But how long will it be civil and safe?”



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