Youth Firesetting: What You Can Do

National Volunteer Fire Council

By Michael O. McLeieer

Writing for National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC)

Nationwide, more than half of all intentionally set fires are started by youths under the age of 18. According to the United States Fire Administration, each year in this country fires set by children and adolescents are responsible for hundreds of fire deaths, thousands of painful burn injuries, and hundreds of millions of dollars in property loss. Young children are also the victims in many of these fires.

Gone is the day when a parent brought a child into the fire station to have the chief or company officer instill fear or scold the child for setting a fire. We now know that youth firesetting is often a “cry for help” to a larger crisis in the child’s life (such as abuse, neglect, bullying, or death of a pet or family member). Youth firesetting is not a fire department problem, but a community problem, and we need to seek partners from the community to be a part of a multi-disciplinary team to provide the juvenile and family with the appropriate services.

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A successful youth firesetting intervention program must start with an identification and intake process. There are multiple ways that juveniles involved in fire incidents come to the attention of a youth firesetting prevention and intervention program, including parents and other caregivers, schools, law enforcement, juvenile justice, courts and attorneys, mental health agencies, social and child protective services, and the fire service.

Once the juvenile has been identified, the pathway to intervention depends on a number of factors:

  1. Immediate referral: Mandates may require immediate referral to the local justice system if there is a violation of local, state, or federal law.
  2. The age of the juvenile: This is known as the age of accountability (when children can understand right from wrong). The age can vary from state to state.
  3. The nature and severity of the fire: Those youths who commit firesetting acts that result in large dollar loss and/or loss of life may be referred to the juvenile justice system before any firesetting intervention takes place.
  4. The firesetting history of the juvenile: Many youth firesetting prevention and intervention programs have strict guidelines on disposition of first-time firesetting versus repeat firesetting.
  5. Standard operating procedures (SOPs) or standard operating guidelines (SOGs): It is essential that all fire department personnel who have the potential to interact with a youth and his or her family have a basic understanding of SOPs or SOGs of the youth firesetting prevention and intervention program. This is most important when dealing with walk-in requests for services at a fire station. SOPs and SOGs will help ensure that rapid and reliable assistance is provided to all families in need of program services.

To determine the juvenile’s level of risk for recidivism, the next process includes conducting a comprehensive screening or interview with the juvenile and his and her family. A six-step screening method for juveniles involved in firesetting is called IRONIC.

The IRONIC method was adopted from public information provided by Captain Paul Zipper, Ph.D., of the Massachusetts State Police and is taught in the youth firesetting prevention and intervention classes through the National Fire Academy.

IRONIC stands for Introduction, Rapport, Opening Statement, Narrative, Inquiry, and Conslusion.

Introduction: The person or people conducting the screening introduce themselves before the process begins.

Rapport: This critical phase begins immediately on contact with the interviewee and continues throughout the interview. Start with small talk. Find out if the youth has a favorite sport, pet, or hobby. You also build rapport by being on time, prepared, and respectful if the interview is in the youth’s home.

Opening Statement: This step informs the youth the reason for the screening. Be direct by saying something like, “I am here today because of the fire next door to your house.”

Narrative: This step allows the youth the opportunity to provide a full account of what happened. Allowing the youth to describe the incident provides a wealth of information to the intervention specialist. He or she should closely analyze the youth’s words. If possible, the narrative should be recorded and transcribed. This narrative of the incident should not be contaminated with leading questions. Follow-up questions may be asked to determine the following: Who, what, when, where, why, and how.

Inquiry: This step serves to document the answers to specific questions asked of the interviewee. Using an approved screening form, the intervention specialist should ask the questions listed on the form and document the answers.

Conclusion: This is the wrap-up of the screening. The intervention specialist should thank the youth and parents/caregiver(s) for their time and ask if they will be available for a second screening, if necessary. They also should provide the family with information on how to maintain contact with the program.

We have a duty to constantly remind parents and caregivers of their responsibility in fire safety. They need to know the following four common factors that influence firesetting:

  1. Easy access to ignition materials: Secure lighters and matches from children.
  2. Lack of supervision: Parents are often shocked to learn their child was engaged in firesetting over a prolonged period of time.
  3. Failure to practice fire safety: Young children, teens, and parents often lack understanding of the dangers associated with firesetting and safety rules about fire. Have clear rules rather than relying on vague threats or warnings.
  4. Easy access to information on the internet: Technology has made explicit media available to juveniles about many dangerous and often illegal, negative risk-taking activities for them to replicate (such as #FireChallenge and building chemical reaction pressure devices).

Parents or caregivers often feel they are the only ones to ever face the problem of firesetting or other negative risk-taking behavior by their child. Fire departments and communities must have measures in place and personnel trained to handle inquires and incidents before they occur.

The National Fire Academy offers professional development training in Youth Firesetting Prevention and Intervention delivered in a two-day or six-day format. More information about on campus and in state deliveries may be found at www.usfa.fema.gov/training/nfa.

Michael McLeieer is a fire lieutenant and has been in the fire service for 25 years. He is certified Fire Officer III, Fire Instructor III, public fire and life safety educator, youth firesetter intervention specialist, and has served on fire departments in both Michigan and Massachusetts. He is a past president of the Michigan State Firemen’s Association, founder of the nonprofit organization E.S.C.A.P.E. Inc (Education Showing Children and Adults Procedures for Evacuations), and has launched the statewide public education and alarm installation campaign Keeping Michigan S.A.F.E. (Smoke Alarms for Everyone).

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