Shortly before midnight, you are dispatched as the assigned fire investigator to a three-story wood-frame multiple dwelling. The building is occupied by four families, and a fire on the first floor has trapped residents above, requiring two alarms to mitigate. On your arrival, the fire has been knocked down and there is a smoke stain above the entry door and burn patterns above the two front windows on the first floor. The windows have been taken out, and residual smoke is still rising from them.

The chief tells you that the fire appears to have originated in the living room of the flat on the first floor. He adds that fire spread to the front bedroom and up the interior public stairs before being confined and extinguished. He notes that all residents were removed safely but must be relocated, and orders you to conduct a cause-and-origin investigation.

After an initial inspection of the fire apartment, you return to the street to speak to the tenants of the building. Across the street, you find a 25-year-old woman sitting on the curb with two young children. Her three-year-old daughter is asleep on her lap, and her five-year-old son is standing nearby, acting agitated and fidgety. She acknowledges that the fire started in her apartment. When asked if she is a smoker, she responds that she is pregnant and does not smoke. She concedes that her boyfriend smokes but adds that he was not home at the time of the fire. You note reluctance in her demeanor when you ask her where the children were at the time the fire started; she contends that they were in bed asleep with her. She says she discovered the fire when, after smelling smoke, she ran to the living room to find the couch on fire where a lamp had fallen over.

(1) The smoke-stained teddy bear and other stuffed animals in this child’s bedroom are reminders of a fire the child had set in the room. (Photos by author.)

With this information, you return to the apartment. On closer examination of the living room, you discover that the burn patterns point to the left side of the couch, where you find the remnants of a burned blanket and fully consumed couch cushions. A halogen table lamp is lying on the floor in front of the couch. Closer inspection of the lamp reveals that it is only slightly damaged by fire and that the line cord was not plugged in. It is, therefore, eliminated as a potential cause of the fire.

A moment later, the chief’s aide calls you and tells you that a top-floor resident has some information for you. The resident relates that before you arrived, he overheard the mother say to a neighbor that her son set the couch on fire and that she had caught him playing with matches the day before. When you return to speak to the mother, she insists that you are wrong about the lamp and that the top-floor resident is lying. The children are no longer on the scene; they were brought to an aunt’s house. The mother says the aunt has no phone and that she does not want you to speak to the children. Where do you go from here?


Juvenile fire setting is a problem that impacts many segments of the fire service: fire suppression, fire prevention/education, and especially fire investigation. Although it is not new, it is a problem that is growing and one we need to pay greater attention to. A number of textbooks address it, and there are several innovative programs throughout the country. The National Fire Academy offers an exceptional training program. Still, there is much more to be done locally to deal with the problem more effectively. In this article, we will address the issue from the fire investigator’s perspective and based on what has occurred in our area.

Fire investigators may encounter juvenile fire setters more frequently than expected. While preparing an annual report on the primary fire causes in the City of Yonkers, I was surprised to find that juvenile-set fires were consistently one of the leading causes of structure fires. Juveniles caused more fires than candles, faulty wiring, insurance fraud, defective appliances, and other factors. These fires resulted in more than a million dollars in property damage and left numerous families homeless. A review of fire-cause statistics from past years showed the percentage of fires set by juveniles to be on the rise.

When this information was shared with the Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health, we learned that over the past three years there was a 300 percent increase in the number of requests for juvenile fire setting risk assessments. It was readily apparent that juvenile fire setting amounted to a significant problem in our area. However, was this a local phenomenon or part of a national trend?

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), children in the United States set approximately 65,000 fires each year, resulting in an estimated $276 million in property damage. These fires cause more than 300 deaths annually; the children who set the fires account for 90 percent of those killed in the fires. According to the most recently published national fire statistics, 50 percent of all arson arrests were juveniles. These statistics may be the tip of the iceberg: They do not take into account the many smaller fires started by kids that are extinguished quickly in the home and are not reported to the fire department or the many juvenile fires labeled as criminal mischief.

Considering these numbers, juvenile fire setting is clearly a problem of major proportion and one the fire service and others need to address. But, what can municipal fire departments do? After all, juvenile fire setting is a problem that appears to be rooted in the home and exacerbated by cultural and social trends beyond our control. What’s more, it also is frequently related to psychological development and family-structure issues. Fire departments are not suited to replace parents; nor are fire investigators trained to provide psychotherapy.

Fortunately, that is not what is required. Addressing juvenile fire setting is a community effort that includes many organizations that offer varied areas of expertise. Although the fire department is the hub and may be called to provide home fire safety training, remedial assistance to the child and family is generally provided by child protective services, family courts, the police youth division, the probation department, the board of education, fire setter intervention specialists, and a variety of community mental health organizations. It is the investigator’s responsibility to determine the cause of fires. When we encounter a fire set by a juvenile, it becomes our obligation to identify the child so the child can be referred to the proper authority for help. This is important because juvenile fire setting can become a repetitive activity that often recurs with increased severity if not properly treated. Today, the scope of response to juvenile fire setting ranges from simple educational intervention to psychological treatment to residential placement to criminal incarceration.


Effectively addressing juvenile fire setting begins with the fire investigator. If the investigator fails to recognize the signs of a juvenile-set fire, no mitigating action can be taken. The correct fire cause determination must be made, but that is just the beginning. The investigator must then make a sound assessment of the child’s fire setting potential to make the appropriate referral. To do this, the investigator needs to screen or categorize the fire setter. There are several ways to measure juvenile fire setters: age, motives, intentions, and behavior, for example. These are discussed in greater detail below.

The direction taken in response to a juvenile fire depends on the fire investigator’s findings. Yet, most fire investigation training focuses on how to read burn patterns, collect evidence, develop fire models, and determine the origin and cause of fires. Investigators are not routinely trained in how to get inside a child’s mind. As a result, many may not initially know how to identify a child who has a problem or assess the potential for recurrent behavior.

Investigators are, however, trained to conduct interviews. When the investigator suspects that a fire has been set by a juvenile, interviews become key. The investigator should first interview the parent(s) and explain the situation in an effort to develop rapport and encourage their cooperation. Then, with their permission, the child should be interviewed. The facts gathered in the interviews with the family and the youngster will provide information essential in evaluating the type of juvenile fire setter involved. A central purpose of this article is to explore the various types of juvenile fire setters and develop guidelines for fire investigators to use in assessing and categorizing juvenile fire setters in the field. Proper assessment or screening is the basis for making the correct referral so that youngsters involved in these activities will receive the appropriate assistance and treatment to halt the fire setting behavior.

In many communities, investigators work with a mental health professional who is on call to respond when a juvenile-set fire is suspected. This team approach is a paradigm arrangement in which an informed evaluation can be made with the assistance of a child psychologist or family case worker. Working relationships with interested family assistance workers/child psychologists in the community are well worth developing.


As mentioned above, the proper referral begins with the correct cause and origin determination. Studies of juvenile fire setting have shown that certain patterns or indicators point toward a fire caused by a juvenile. One indicator is time of day. Juveniles rarely set fires between midnight and 8 a.m. They are most likely to set fires between noon and 8 p.m.; the greatest number occur after school hours. Fires occurring in the home during these hours should lead the investigator to consider the possibility of a juvenile-set fire. Teens may set fires somewhat later than younger children, frequently between 9 p.m. and midnight. Juvenile fires also increase during the holidays and school vacations, when children have additional free time and less direct supervision.

Location is another indicator. Although they can originate anywhere throughout the home, juvenile-set fires occur most often in the child’s bedroom-on, under, or behind the bed. The next most common location is in the garage, where flammables are readily available. Juveniles also frequently start fires in closets or outside storage sheds, where they are not readily seen committing the act. Younger children tend to set fires in the room where they find the source of ignition. Teens and older juveniles may set fires outside of the home setting. Teenage juveniles are often responsible for outside rubbish fires; brush fires; and, of course, school fires. Juvenile-set fires at schools are most often set in lavatories or dumpsters, but any fire at a school should be a red flag that it may be a juvenile-set fire.

Gender is another indicator. Although girls do set fires, boys are more likely to do so. Studies in Rochester, New York, and Portland, Oregon, have shown that boys set 80 to 85 percent of juvenile fires. Teens often set fires with others; younger children typically act alone.

Age is also a factor. Fire setting behavior can start in children as young as two. National statistics show that with each successive year, fire setting behavior increases. Eight-year-old fire setters are more common than five-year-old fire setters, for example. Fire setting tends to peak at age 12 or 13 (sixth or seventh grade) and then decline in teenagers. In most cases, when a fire large enough for the fire department to respond is set, the investigation reveals that the fire setter had engaged in fire play at a younger age and that the issue was not addressed.

(2) A pistol-grip butane lighter fascinates some younger children and should be kept out of their reach.

Lighters, matches, and unattended candles provide the most common sources of ignition; lighters are used in more than half of the fires. Younger children are especially interested in the pistol-grip butane lighters used to start barbecues (photo 2). These lighters look like guns, and small children try to pull the trigger. These devices should be carefully stored out of the reach of children. In the vast majority of cases, children find the ignition source at home. Therefore, the investigator should always inquire if the parents smoke and where they keep their smoking materials. Some children watch their parents turn on the gas range and then use the burner as an ignition source to light a paper torch with which to transfer fire. When the investigator finds lax parental safety habits, it is imperative to have a home fire safety specialist talk to the family.


The investigator should also consider the family circumstances. Indications of family stress and instability are among the more significant contributing factors for juvenile fire setting, and investigators should observe parental behavior and attitude. Statistics show that children are more likely to engage in fire setting activity when they live in single-parent households or where supervision is otherwise limited. Evidence of a lack of parental supervision and diminished parental contact in the home might initiate fire setting activity. Fire setting episodes increase when divorce or separation has been recent or is impending. Many children respond to the stress of family upheaval in this way.

Child abuse is another contributing factor. If suspected, report it to your local child protective services agency.

A final indicator is poverty. Although juvenile fire setting cuts across all socioeconomic boundaries, children who live in poorer neighborhoods more often engage in this type of behavior.

Fire setting may also be a reaction to traumas occurring outside the home. The child may be the victim of bullying or perhaps was left back in school. Other indicators of fire setting activity are discipline problems at school, low self-esteem, and the use of prescribed medication. These issues should be covered in the parental interview.

Keep in mind that children do not have the same coping skills as adults. Often, children’s response to stress or an unwanted transition is self-destructive or inappropriate. Children often react to stressful family transitions by setting fires. When conducting an interview with the parent, find out if there have been any sudden changes in the family. Juvenile fires are more prevalent when a single parent finds another partner and the child feels left out. Another catalyst might be the family’s planning to move away. Sometimes parental illness or death stimulates this behavior. One final transition often overlooked is the birth of a new sibling. A fire in a crib or the new baby’s room is a strong indicator of a juvenile-set fire.


When the scene examination and evidence point to a juvenile-set fire, the investigator should share his findings with the parents or guardian. An in-depth meeting should be conducted with the parent to obtain information about the current family situation and the child’s history with fire play; ask for permission to speak with the child. It is essential to develop a good rapport with the parents and to engender their trust. Foster their cooperation by being honest about the seriousness of the situation and your intention to help them through it. If the parents show genuine concern, the process is a lot easier and is more likely to succeed.

Interview the child as soon as possible after the fire. Make the child feel comfortable and at ease. Many children look up to firefighters. They respect the uniform. Use this to make the child feel safe. Try to determine the answers to questions such as the following: What did the child use to start the fire? What was the reason for starting the fire? What did the child do after lighting the fire? Did the child wait and watch the fire develop, try to put it out, or just walk away? This information can help you to identify the type of juvenile fire setter. Does the child appear remorseful, or is he in denial? Is this the first fire experience? How did it make the child feel? Did the child act alone? Most importantly, was the child’s thinking self-correcting-in other words, did the child realize what he did was wrong or dangerous? If so, then he understood the consequences and would be less likely to start other fires.

After speaking to the child privately, hold a conference with the parents and the child. This can be difficult at times because of parents’ natural tendency to protect their children. Experience has shown that parents can become defensive, give misleading statements, deny that the child was involved, or refuse to allow the investigator to interview the child. They fear that if they allow the investigator to ascertain an admission from the child, the child will be taken away from them. Such protective behavior should cause you to suspect that there may be juvenile involvement.


One of the most frustrating aspects of juvenile fire setting is the tendency toward recidivism. Setting fires is often a semiconscious response to stress or conflicts in the child’s life, as mentioned above. Therefore, whenever the stressor or conflict reappears, the child is at risk of repeating the destructive behavior. Without intervention, the behavior can disappear for several years and then recur. In severe cases, fire setting behavior can be repeated throughout childhood and continue into adulthood. As a rule, subsequent fires become larger and more costly.

According to the Handbook on Fire Setting in Children and Youth (Kolko), the likelihood of relapse is most frequent under the following circumstances:

The child is normally involved in fire-related activities in the home.

• The child expresses hostility (during the interview).

• There is lax parental discipline.

• There is family conflict.

• There is limited family acceptance of the problem (i.e. denial).

In making a proper assessment, it is important to understand the general reasons juveniles set fires. In Kirk’s Fire Investigation, John DeHaan lists several reasons, ranging from curiosity to the need to express anger or seek attention. In cases of neglect or abuse, children may set fires as a cry for help. In response to family upheaval, children may express anger or jealousy in this manner. In some cases, vandalism is the primary motivation. In others, psychopathology is the cause. The investigator should conduct interviews with the parents and child to determine the reasons for the juvenile fire setting behavior. Based on this determination, the investigator will be able to assess the likelihood of the juvenile’s setting more fires in the future and decide on the most appropriate follow-up treatment to prevent recurrence.


There are several ways to categorize or “type” juvenile fire setters. The Juvenile Fire Setter Intervention Project describes a method based primarily on motivation and behavior. Understanding the characteristics of these rule-of-thumb categories can assist in making an accurate assessment and correct referral. Although these categories are not exclusive and fire setters may have a mix of motives for their actions, they often serve as a basis for an accurate assessment.


Studies have shown that this type of fire setter accounts for approximately two-thirds of all juvenile-set fires. Natural curiosity and experimentation are the motivations. Some 40 to 50 percent of children experiment with fire at least once in their youth. Most do not set fires that cause property damage or develop maladaptive fire setting behavior. Children motivated by curiosity usually are between the ages of five and 10. These younger children do not fully realize the dangers associated with fire or comprehend that their use of matches could cause the house to burn down. The interview with the child will reveal no apparent learning disorder or behavioral or psychological problem. No traumatic family changes are evident, although there may a lack of parental supervision or a laissez-faire parental attitude. Often, there is a solid family structure and the parents exhibit concern. It is likely, however, that one or both parents is a smoker and that, as a result, matches or a lighter are available in the house.

This type of fire setter is not considered pathological and is not usually referred for psychological care unless the investigator observes abnormality in the child’s mood. A stern admonition to the child and follow-up home fire safety training are usually the most appropriate remedies for this type of fire setter. The strategy is to educate the child about the dangers associated with fire and the parents about home fire safety and the dangers of casually storing smoking materials. Parents must be advised to restrict the availability of ignition sources to their children. Often, the fire prevention bureau has a specialist in this type of fire safety training to whom the matter can be referred. Recidivism is low, as long as strong educational intervention is provided.

Cry for Help

This type of fire setter accounts for approximately 20 percent of juvenile fires. Cry-for-help fires can occur at any age and are often in response to one of the family transitions discussed above. This child is often going through a stressful period and cannot effectively cope. Motivated consciously or subconsciously, the fire setting activity is an attempt to draw attention. The post-fire interviews should cover the current circumstances. Often, the antecedent to the fire setting behavior is an adverse family change such as a geographic relocation, divorce, separation, or a remarriage the child opposes. Illness, death, or parental incarcerations are also associated with this type of fire activity. The juvenile may also be experiencing some form of child abuse, neglect, family dysfunction, or difficulty at school. The situation may not be as serious, except in the eyes of the child-as an example, the mother may have gotten a job and the child now has less time with her. In this instance, the fire setting behavior is motivated by a need for attention. Even negative attention is some attention.

These fire setters have the greatest potential for recidivism. It is essential to conduct a thorough interview of the child and the parent/guardian to get an accurate impression of each and a thorough family history. Of course, if child abuse is evident, you should immediately refer the case to the police and child protective services. This form of fire setting is likely to recur unless some form of intervention is provided. A referral to a mental health professional or family crisis counselor is often necessary. Additionally, a home fire safety training program is essential.

Approximately 15 percent of juvenile fires are set by children with varying degrees of behavioral problems. On one end of the spectrum, a certain percentage of any group of children test the limits. They tend to be aggressive, hyperactive, and rebellious and engage in risk taking. Occasionally, these risks may involve lighting fires. Perhaps this behavior results in an act of vandalism designed to get attention; to please peers; or to express jealousy, frustration, or anger. For some, it is simply a lack of good judgment inherent in the growing-up process. Unfortunately, when such behavioral problems go unchecked, kids can cross the line into juvenile delinquency.

Juvenile Delinquents

Juvenile delinquents involved in fire setting tend to be older, usually in the 11- to 15-year-old age group. If they have had a history of fire setting, they may have burn scars on their hands or arms. For them, fire setting can be a means to gain acceptance from peers, a form of vandalism, or a means of concealing a crime. Their motive for setting the fire is often conscious, or premeditated, instead of curiosity. In some cases, the fire could indicate gang involvement. The degree of delinquency may become evident during the interview. Some juveniles may show some degree of concern or remorse. Depending on how well they respond, they may benefit from a stern conference with the investigator and follow-up treatment with a mental health professional along with an understanding that any future involvement will mean arrest. Others may be uncooperative, untruthful, and defiant, showing little fear of consequences. They are more difficult to treat.

A background investigation will often turn up other types of aggressive behavior, including poor conduct at school, truancy, or even a criminal record. If a child has already been classified as a juvenile delinquent, if he set previous fires, or if the fire caused property damage or is otherwise considered criminal in nature, the child should be referred to the police youth bureau for entry into the juvenile justice system. Delinquent fire setters are most likely to need referral to the juvenile justice system. The risk of repeat fire behavior is often too great to risk nonmandated treatment.

Mentally Disturbed

This category accounts for only about two to three percent of juvenile fires. These children may be motivated by fascination with fire, pyromania, or self-harm. The youth may exhibit signs of fire fixation or delusional thoughts during the interview. Although the team approach (with a child psychologist or family case worker) is immensely beneficial with all types of fire setters, it is especially helpful with this type. The tendency to repeat fire setting behavior will vary with the psychological diagnosis. However, this group must be considered at high risk for repeat fire setting behavior. A referral to a mental health professional or committal to an institutional facility for treatment is often the only means of addressing this type of fire setting behavior.

Each of the above types has its own degree of risk of repeat fire setting, which, if not addressed, increases as the child gets older. Each responds best to a different type of intervention. The fire investigator’s chief concern when evaluating a juvenile fire setter is to estimate the degree of risk for repeat fire setting behavior. Based on the investigator/team’s impression, a referral for intervention is made to prevent repeat fire setting.


Once an assessment has been made, some type of referral is usually warranted. Referrals are generally voluntary or involuntary. A voluntary referral is used when the child and family are cooperative, neither the child nor family is in immediate danger, the fire is not criminal in nature, and no child abuse or neglect is apparent. The referral will usually involve home fire safety education and/or mental health evaluation and treatment. A useful tool for this type of referral is a Juvenile Fire Setter Contract or Agreement in which the child and parent agree in writing to participate in a specified plan of fire safety education and counseling in lieu of a referral to the child protective services or juvenile justice system. The agreement may also include community service or restitution in addition to treatment. Such a contract can be used when the child is of low to moderate risk of repeat fire setting and the parents are cooperative and motivated to participate. Follow-up supervision is essential to see that the goals are being met and the child and family have met their obligations.

Home fire safety education is an essential aspect of noncriminal referrals. Limiting access to ignition devices (matches, lighters, candles, stove burners, welding torches, for example) is the most immediate preventive measure that can be taken. Installing smoke detectors is also important, as is establishing an escape plan. Young children often do not understand the power of fire, and efforts must be made to educate them in the dangers and potential consequences of their actions. Photos of the aftermath of fires and professionally produced videos such as Don’t Play Games with Fanny Flame can be effective in making the point. Parents play a key role and must closely supervise the child.

If there is evidence of parental neglect or abuse, make an involuntary referral to child protective services so that a case worker can be assigned. When a crime has been committed, others have been put at risk, or the child or family is not cooperating, the child must be involuntarily referred to the police youth division for entry into the juvenile justice system. In some cases, this is the only way to get cooperation and mandate participation in a plan to help the child. With experience, the investigator will be better able to determine which path to take. Generally, children under seven years of age are not referred to the police youth bureau. They are considered too young to intentionally commit a crime and cannot be charged. Children between the ages of seven and 15 may be referred to the police youth bureau if there is probable cause. Children ages 16 and older are characteristically treated as adult fire setters. These ages may vary slightly from state to state, and investigators are advised to consult with their local district attorney.


Following are three case studies that illustrate the issues discussed above and how the situations were resolved.

Scenario 1

You, as fire investigator, respond to a fire in a residential high-rise at 2 p.m. The fire originated on a shelf in the bathroom and spread to the wall behind it, where flames reached the ceiling. There was some flame impingement to the upper levels of the adjacent hallway before the fire was brought under control. The rest of the apartment, as well as the public hallway, sustained smoke damage. The head of the household is a single mother who was at work at the time of the fire and is en route to the scene.

An uncle was at the apartment babysitting a four-year-old girl at the time of the fire. He had fallen asleep watching TV when the fire occurred. The grandfather removed the child from the scene prior to your arrival, reportedly because the child was upset.

In your examination of the bathroom, you find no evidence of an accidental source of ignition. The hair dryer is unplugged, as is the curling iron, and the electric outlet is on a wall opposite the area of origin. You find a trigger activated butane lighter at the base of the “V” pattern on the wall behind the shelf.

When the mother arrives, she has an angry confrontation with the uncle. Later, she reluctantly admits that her four-year-old daughter may have been playing alone in the bathroom where a lighter for a scented candle was kept. She also admits that she has been recently separated. She does not want you to interview the child and insists that her daughter is a good girl.

You take time to develop rapport with the mother and explain the dangers associated with this behavior if not addressed. Eventually, she agrees to allow you to speak to the child with the grandfather present. At that time, the child admits she found the lighter on the top shelf of the bathroom rack and climbed up to get it. There is no history of previous fire setting. How would you classify this fire setter? Should you make a referral? To whom?

Resolution. This child is only four and has limited language skills. Patience is necessary when interviewing her. However, her body language is obvious when she is shown the butane lighter. She clearly recognizes it and manually demonstrates how she held it and how the fire spread.

She may have set the fire because she was curious, bored, or angry about the mother’s recent separation. She clearly did not understand the dangers of fire or the consequences of her actions. Her behavior heretofore had been quite good. In a setting where lighters and matches are made unavailable, she would be unlikely to experience a recurrence of fire setting.

This child was referred to a mental health counselor trained in assessing and treating juvenile fire setting, who worked with her to prevent recidivism. The fire department provided home fire safety training to the mother; home fire safety and the need to remove fire starting devices from the home were emphasized. The mother was not a smoker and agreed to discard all lighters and to discontinue the use of scented candles.

Had the mother continued to oppose efforts to speak to the child, it would have been necessary to refer the case to child protective services, which would have assigned a case worker and mandated treatment. Often, mentioning child protective services engenders immediate cooperation.

Scenario 2

A fire occurs in a three-bedroom apartment above a grocery store at 1:30 p.m. the day before Thanksgiving. As you enter the building, the lieutenant of the first-due engine stops you and tells you that something looks fishy. When he entered the fire apartment upstairs, two of the burners on the gas stove were on and a roll of paper towels was on the stove laddering the fire to the wall cabinets above. The fire damaged the cabinet but was generally confined to one side of the kitchen.

After the companies leave, you interview the mother, who is acting upset and admits that she left her autistic daughter alone in the apartment for one minute to go downstairs for a gallon of milk. In the midst of your interview, the father comes home, overreacts, and becomes furious. He threatens his wife with a beating, accusing her of not supervising the kids properly. How would you handle this case?

Resolution. In this case, the investigator felt an immediate sense of concern for the welfare of the mother and children. Efforts to calm the father at the scene met with limited success. It was apparent that the family environment was not a safe one. Child Protective Services was notified, and the police were asked to respond with the agency’s representatives.

Both agencies did a records check on the family. Child Protective Services had two previous cases associated with this family, for child neglect. The police had responded to the home dozens of times for domestic disputes. The father had a long rap sheet that included numerous felony convictions. There was a current outstanding warrant for him, and he was placed under arrest. Child Protective Services is currently assisting and monitoring the mother. If the agency’s safety standards are not met, the children will be placed in foster care.

Scenario 3

You receive a call from a building superintendent, who tells you that there was a small fire in his building that self-extinguished and that he found some sort of incendiary device in the third-floor hallway next to a burn hole in the carpet. He shows you a soda can containing what smells like alcohol residue inside with a loose-leaf paper wick sticking out of the top-a crude incendiary device.

While canvassing residents on the third floor, you learn that a teenage girl whose mother works during the day had invited some friends over after school. You contact the mother and arrange a visit to the apartment. When you show the mother the device, she becomes concerned and is fully supportive of your efforts. You then interview the teenager, and she reluctantly admits that they had been using a lighter and some aerosol to spray flames at each other. She also tells you that two boys, ages 13 and 14, made the makeshift device with a soda can, set it on fire, and ran away.

You ascertain their names and learn that they live across town. When you find their addresses, you realize that they are next-door neighbors. You approach the parents of each. The first parent has legal custody of his son, is cooperative initially, but later balks at getting the child help. He blames the next-door neighbor’s son of being the real culprit. However, his 14-year-old son admits setting other fires and doesn’t see what’s wrong with it since nothing really happened.

When you go next door, you find a two-parent household, but the parents are apparent alcoholics. The 13-year-old appears remorseful, but the father obstructs the interview. He insists that he will handle it and doesn’t need help from the fire department or a counselor for his son.

Resolution. The home follow-up visit with the girl revealed solid parental leadership and cooperation. However, the home visits with the boys revealed difficulties in both home settings. In this case, there was limited property damage. Nevertheless, an incendiary device, however crude and ineffective, was used within an occupied building. Constructing such a device implies advanced fire play. Without firm intervention, the next device could be more sophisticated.

This case was referred to the police youth division for follow-up. This approach provided the weight of the juvenile justice system to engender cooperation. A fire setter risk evaluation by a trained mental health professional was ordered for each child. The goal here is not punitive but preventive. These kids need to be closely supervised. They need to be kept busy after school; they were placed in structured programs. Their school counselors were notified of their behaviors so that they could be monitored while in school. A local merchant who sold lighters to one of the minors received a summons from the police.

• • •

Investigating a fire and making a “call” with respect to the cause of the fire is often challenging in itself. When circumstances are such that a juvenile is involved in setting the fire, investigators must make an additional call. We must screen/assess the child to refer the child for the most effective treatment. This is a new skill for many investigators, even though the problem of juvenile fire setting is a long-standing one. If possible, the assessment should be made with the help of a child specialist who is on call to work with the fire investigator.

Our motivation as investigators is to prevent recurrent fire setting behavior. The key to preventing future problems is the correct referral. Whether voluntary or involuntary, the type of referral depends on the circumstances of each fire, the child, and parental cooperation. A cooperative alliance of fire, police, education, community mental health, social services, and child protective agencies must be developed before effective assistance can be provided to juvenile fire setters in the community. Such an alliance takes time to develop.

Training in assessing and treating juvenile fire setters is still relatively new. At present, only a handful of states are involved with the National Association of State Fire Marshals ( Juvenile Fire Setter Intervention Project. Efforts are underway to expand the program to all 50 states. The National Fire Academy ( has recently developed a model Juvenile Fire Setter Intervention Specialist certification program. Mental health professionals are beginning to develop treatment protocols and strategies geared specifically for this issue. At the same time, fire investigators are beginning to learn the art of screening and assessing the types of juvenile fire setters they encounter. For investigators, this amounts to taking the investigative process a step further and follow-up work. However, if your referral breaks a pattern of repeat fire setting, you have pulled a kid back from the edge. You may never realize when you’ve been successful. Nevertheless, if you prevent a fire, the effort has paid off, and you’ve done your job well.


Cole, R., Robert Crandall., Jerold Bills. Firefighter’s Complete Juvenile Fire Setter Handbook. (Pillsford, N.Y.: Fireproof Children Company), 1999.

DeHaan, John. Kirk’s Fire Investigation, 5th edition. Prentice Hall, 2002.

Kolko, David. Handbook on Fire Setting in Children and Youth. (San Diego: Academic Press), 2002.

Schwartzman, P. et al. “Types of Fire Setters: Psychological and Sociological Dimensions,” Juvenile Fire Setter Intervention Project, 2001.



In some communities, a juvenile fire setter officer is available to work with the fire investigator(s). Once the fire department refers the case to the juvenile officer, the preliminary assessment begun at the scene is taken to the next level, and the responsibility of overseeing the case to its conclusion is transferred to the juvenile officer. One such model program is operating in Monroe County, New York.

The Monroe County Fire Bureau’s Juvenile Fire Setter Intervention Program (JFIP) in Rochester, New York, serves the children and families of Monroe County. The JFIP specifically targets children who have engaged in fire play or fire setting behaviors. Each year, JFIP sees on average more than 200 children in Monroe County (excluding the city of Rochester) who have been involved with some type of fire play or fire setting incident, averaging an annual cost in damages of more than $350,000. Nearly 35 percent of the children JFIP sees are involved with or are referred on for mental health services.

The JFIP works with nearly 40 fire districts throughout Monroe County. When one of these fire districts comes across a child who has engaged in fire setting behaviors (either a call from a parent or information obtained at the fire scene), as part of protocol, the incident commander or possibly the origin and cause specialist contacts the 911 dispatcher and requests the presence of a juvenile officer at the scene. JFIP staff are available 24/7 to meet the needs of the community’s families and fire investigators.

Once at the scene, the juvenile officer may assist the origin and cause specialist or local law enforcement official with interviewing juveniles or canvassing bystanders for information regarding the incident. If a juvenile involved in fire play or fire setting is determined to be the cause of the fire, regardless of whether an arrest is made or not, the child is referred to the JFIP unit to begin the intervention process.

The role of the juvenile officer assigned to a case is extensive. In addition to interviewing individuals at the scene, the one-on-one work done with the child and the family by the juvenile officer is wide-ranging. The work of determining why that child has resorted to abusing fire; the motivation; how long this behavior has been occurring; the role, if any, the parents have had in the series of events; and many other questions need to be answered. In addition, it must be determined if the child/family will need any types of treatment.

The juvenile officer should be trained in areas such as child development and should have a basic understanding of the common childhood mental health diagnoses and behavioral problems; a functioning understanding of the legal system, the probation system, local social services agencies (i.e., child protective services); and a working knowledge of community resources. Juvenile officers should also receive training in cultural awareness, issues relating to confidentiality, case documentation and record keeping, interviewing children, basic arson awareness, and principles of fire behavior.

The juvenile officer must begin with evaluating the child’s motivation for fire setting and teaching the child the dangers of fire, fire science, the consequences of the actions, and the impact the behavior can have on others as well as the child.

The first step is to obtain as much information as possible regarding the fire setting event. Obtaining a copy of the police report and the fire report is crucial. They will assist you when discussing the event with the child. If there are discrepancies in the child’s version, the report will be there to “fill in the gaps.” The report will also be an important part of the referral packet that will be provided to the treatment provider if the case is referred for further services.

After obtaining the incident information, the next step is to set up a time to meet the child. It is easier to work with the child in the family’s home. Doing the intervention and education in the child’s home enables the juvenile officer to assess the home environment, which will assist in the intervention process and may help to determine motivating factors for the fire setting behaviors. In addition, if further mental health services are necessary, the juvenile officer may be able to serve as the “eyes and ears” of the therapist in the home.

It is critical to build a rapport with the child and to have him feel comfortable with you. This will open communication lines between you and the child. It will also foster trust. These two elements are vital to the educational and assessment components of the intervention. During this phase, you will gather information regarding the child’s attitudes about school, the situation at home, and any crisis or stressors the child may be experiencing. In addition, you will gather information about the child’s knowledge of fire, likes/dislikes, hobbies, and any factors that will help to establish a baseline from which to work.

All children, regardless of their motivation for fire setting, must receive an educational intervention. The educational component should not be the standard “fire prevention and safety message” often provided to children through fire education programs. It should consist of different elements including the science of fire, heat, temperature, toxicity, the speed of fire, and the child’s inability to control fire. Focus on the consequences of the child’s behavior-the financial impact fire setting can have on the child’s family, the consequences to the community and neighborhood, the legal consequences, the long-and short-term consequences of burn injuries, and the impact fire setting can have on the child’s self-esteem, for example. It is important that the child take ownership of and responsibility for his actions.

Once the education component is completed, determine the child’s motivation for the fire setting. Motivating factors such as curiosity, peer pressure, child abuse or neglect, mental health problems, poor impulse control, and alcohol or substance abuse can be motivators. The fire setting can also be related to other factors such as gang-related activities or sociocultural reasons. The juvenile officer can use a variety of tested tools to assist in determining the motivation and whether there is a need to refer the child for ongoing mental health or preventive services (to the most appropriate provider for that child). The key is to find what works best for you and your style and to be comfortable using it.

In relation to ongoing mental health and/or preventive services for a child and family, a definitive distinction needs to be made between what the juvenile officer is doing and what will be done by the mental health treatment provider or preventive agency. Often, our JFIP staff and I are referred to as “counselors.” The distinction has to be made that juvenile officers working for a juvenile fire intervention program and providing education and future fire setting assessments are not counselors. They are educators in all instances, investigators in many, assessment providers in all (depending on the depth of the JFIP program), and counselors in none. The counselor or therapist to whom the case is referred is going to be working on long-term issues and goals with the child and likely will be dealing with issues that may have caused the child to begin engaging in fire setting behaviors. Those behaviors can include sexual or physical abuse, poor anger management skills, substance abuse, or the breakup of the family unit as well as many others. The “counselor” or therapist in that case will be using techniques used in the mental health and therapy fields (behavior management, anger management, play or art therapy, music therapy, relaxation and soothing exercises, aggression replacement training, or many others). There may also be a need to enlist the services of a psychiatrist in case part of the treatment plan includes the use of psychotropic medication to alleviate a behavior.

Finally, although the juvenile officer is not the “counselor” when working with a juvenile fire setter, that officer does become a member of the treatment team once the child is referred for ongoing mental health or preventive services. The goal in every case should be to stop the fire setting behaviors so that the child, the family, and the community are safe. All of the providers working with the family, including the officer, should be working toward the same goals, and communication lines among those entities must be open and free flowing.

The results of juvenile fire setting can be devastating and sometimes deadly. Juvenile fire has recently been identified as the fastest growing fire threat in the United States. The “team”-from origin and cause investigator to juvenile officer to mental health treatment specialist to all of the professionals and family members in between-need to work together toward the common goal of preventing and extinguishing juvenile fire setting.

For more information regarding intervention strategies, education programs, or assessment tools, contact me at

FRED RION is program coordinator and juvenile fire setter intervention specialist with the Monroe County (NY) Fire Bureau’s Juvenile Fire Setter Intervention Program in Rochester. In addition, he is an emergency management program specialist with the Monroe County Office of Emergency Preparedness and oversees Monroe County’s implementation of the new federal government mandate of the National Incident Management System. Rion has worked in public safety for five years and spent the prior nine years in child protective services, specializing in the investigation of child sexual abuse and child homicide cases. He has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the State University of New York at Albany, a master’s degree in social work from Syracuse University, and a master’s degree in public administration from the State University of New York College at Brockport. He has lectured on juvenile fire setting throughout New York State, including at the New York State Fire Academy, and developed the first college-level course devoted to juvenile fire setting for the Homeland Security Management Institute.

DOUG LEIHBACHER is a 26-year veteran of the fire service and an assistant chief of training in the Yonkers (NY) Fire Department. He is a certified fire investigator, former head of the department’s fire investigation unit, and a founding member of the Yonkers Juvenile Fire Setter Intervention Network. He has an associate’s degree in fire protection technology and a bachelor’s degree in education. He is a New York State-certified fire instructor and municipal training officer and has been a classroom and hands-on instructor at FDIC and FDIC East as well as a contributing writer for Fire Engineering since 1994.

No posts to display