Firefighter Arsonists: Stopping the Problem at the Door of the Firehouse

By John K. Murphy, Esq. and Beth L. Murphy, MA

We are all appalled by the recent spate of fires being set by firefighters, most notably reported in the news, volunteer firefighters. In recent news events, we read with increasing frequency that our own firefighters are starting fires, which in some instances kill citizens. Some examples in the public record follow: 

  • When a volunteer firefighter got lost after drinking into Saturday morning at St. Gabriel’s Lodge in West Pottsgrove, Pennsylvania, he got mad and started setting fires along his path, authorities said. When local firefighters arrived to hose down the flames at a neighbor’s shed, Charles Sluzenski, who had found his way back to his mother’s house, dashed drunkenly forth in full firefighting gear and asked to help
  • A volunteer firefighter was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for setting a fire that killed a mother and three of her children, an arson that prosecutors said was the firefighter’s attempt to look like a hero. 
  • A firefighter with the Lake Township (IN) Volunteer Fire Department has been charged with two counts of arson in connection with two March structure fires in Newton County.
  • State police arrested a fourth volunteer firefighter from Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, in a series of arsons that caused more than $2 million damage. In addition, troopers said two more people would be charged today in connection with the nine fires that were set between Sept. 30 and Jan. 23 in Washington, Wayne, West Brunswick, and East Brunswick townships in Schuylkill County.
  • A New London (CT) judge refused to reduce the sentence of a probationary firefighter who torched three houses in Mystic in the summer of 2008 to impress his colleagues. The Judge sentenced the 23-year-old Groton man to 14 years in prison and five years probation. She told him he was lucky he had not killed a firefighter or the people in the two occupied homes he had set afire.
 
This article explores the reasons or motivations behind firefighters setting fires and what is missing in the recruitment, hiring, testing, and training process that allows these individuals to become members of our profession.
 

Arson Reports

According to the United State Fire Administration’s (USFA) National Fire Incident Report­ing System (NFIRS) data and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), an estimated average of 316,600 intentional fires are reported to fire departments in the United States each year, causing injuries to 7,825 fire­fighters and civilians. In 2006, 10 firefighters died as a result of arson. In addition to needless injury and death, an estimated $1.1 billion in direct property loss occurs annually. These are the numbers for intentionally set fires, which includes arson. The number of pure arson cases is more difficult to track.

 
The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) 2008 Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) [1] statistics showed that 14,011 law enforcement agencies reported 62,807 arsons. Arsons involving structures (e.g., residential, storage, public, and so on) accounted for 43.4 percent of the total number of arson offenses. Mobile property (e.g., cars, motorcycles, and so on) was involved in 28.9 percent of arsons, and other types of property (such as crops, timber, fences, and so on) accounted for 27.7 percent of reported arsons.
 
The last report by the USFA specific to arson fires used numbers gathered in 1997. Arson fires (defined as incendiary/suspicious in NFIRS) comprised almost 16 percent of all reported fires in 1997 and accounted for more than $554 million or 15 percent of all the total estimated dollar loss. Arson is defined by this study as the willful and malicious burning of property. All states have criminal laws pertaining to arson in various degrees of severity.
 
The criminal act of arson is divided into three elements:
 
1. There is a burning of property. This must be shown to the court to be actual destruction, at least in part, not just scorching or sooting.

2. The fire is incendiary in origin. Proof must be established by evidence either through specific forensic findings or by expert testimony that all possible natural or accidental causes have been considered and eliminated.

3. The fire is proved to be started with malice.

Even more difficult to track are intentionally fire sets, including arson attributed to firefighters. Several agencies track arsons, and a 2003 study by the U.S. Fire Administration found there are no hard data about the prevalence of firefighter arsonists. The difficulty is due in part to a lag time in reporting the event as arson and an even longer time to determine it was firefighter arson. Arson requires that a person confess or be convicted. Only then does it become a statistic–a statistic that agencies are having a difficult time tracking.

 
A similar investigation by the National Volunteer Fire Council in the early 1990s also struggled to pin down statistics. Fire officials said these arsonists have a disproportionate impact among the country’s more than a million firefighters. They erode public trust, firefighter morale, and make it harder for volunteer units to raise much-needed funds.
 

Profile of a Firefighter Arsonist

The special report on firefighter arson provides two overlapping profiles of a firefighter arsonist as developed by the FBI’s behavior analysis unit and the South Carolina Forestry Commission. Given the propensity of firefighters for setting fires in the news, including the table of personality characteristics for the two profiles is appropriate and should be used in conjunction with other background and psychological screening factors.

 
 
Table 1. Firefighter Arsonist Profile Comparison
South Carolina Forestry Commission
FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit
White male, age 17 – 26
White male, age 17 – 25
Product of disruptive, harsh, or unstable rearing environment
One or both parents missing from home during childhood. If from an intact home, the emotional atmosphere was mixed and unstable.
Poor relationship with father, overprotective mother
Dysfunctional. One of their parents left the home before the child reached age 17. Cold, distant, hostile, or aggressive relationship with the natural father.
If married, poor marital adjustment
Poor marital adjustment. If not married, still living at home with parents.
Lacking social and interpersonal skills
Lack of stable interpersonal relationships
Poor occupational adjustment, employed in low-paying jobs
Poor occupational adjustment. Menial laborer, skilled laborer, clerical jobs
Fascinated with the fire service and its trappings
Interested in the fire service in the context that it provides an arena for excitement, not for the sake of public service.
May be facing unusual stress (family, financial, or legal problems)
Alcoholism, childhood hyperactivity, homosexuality, depression, borderline personality disorder, and suicidal tendencies
Average to above-average intelligence, but poor to fair academic performance in school
Mixed findings on intelligence, but most arsonists have been found to have average to higher intelligence. Poor academic performance.
U.S. Fire Administration/Technical Report Series, 2003
 
What is interesting about the profiles included above is how closely they resemble the profile of civilian arsonists. Also of note within the profiles provided is the presence of symptoms of mental health disorders and biological-based disorders, which can affect any individual, firefighter, or civilian. A term often inaccurately associated with fire-setting behavior is pyromania. Pyromania is a disorder found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR). It is characterized by repeated fire setting. Unlike simple arson, however, there appears to be no motive for setting fires other than a fascination with fire. Pyromania is more common in males than females, and is a rare disorder: perhaps only 1 percent of all those who set fires have this disorder; the remainder have some understandable motive. These patients often delight in watching fires and may regularly follow fire engines. Some may even end up as volunteer firefighters consistent with some of the identified characteristic of the FBI profile.
 
A diagnosis of this condition requires meeting specific symptom criteria, which most people who set fires don’t meet. Individuals who set fire do so for other reasons such as financial motives; ideological or political convictions (such as terrorist or anarchist political beliefs); anger or revenge; a desire to cover up another crime, attention or recognition, and developmental experimentation. Fire setting is also a symptom of mental or biological disorders including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), conduct disorder, antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, a manic episode, schizophrenia, alcohol and/or drug abuse, dementia, or mental retardation.
 
The function of fire setting behavior within the listed disorders varies. In some cases, the fire setting behaviors function as self-soothing; the fire setter is experiencing tension and seeing the flames is soothing or a release of anger or revenge. The arsonist may have problems with impulse control, impaired judgment, or substance intoxication in which the fires are set without thought or care for the consequences of endangerment and life or property loss. Arson also can be used as a means to gain attention. Attention seeking is often meant to gain attention or acceptance from a peer group or to provide a means for the fire setter to act as a hero. Finally, fire setting can be used as a means to communicate a need for some change or as a cry for help.
 
I have talked to attorneys representing families whose homes were torched by firefighter arsonists. The attorneys stated that through interrogatories and depositions they discovered that the reason the firefighter joined the fire service was to build character and develop a sense of values despite demonstrating a lack of these traits as evidenced by frequent run-ins with the law or problems at home. These traits are consistent with the FBI’s profile of an arsonist. Importantly, these traits and other traits consistent with the profile of an arsonist are present before a firefighter candidate is hired, and it is the job of the department to identify these individuals in their hiring process.
 
The fire service is not a solution for families or individuals to help these “problem children” who were directed to the fire service by other family members or friends who are in the fire service. My thought is if you want character development, a stint in the Marine Corps may have better success than the fire service. Meaning no disrespect to our profession and the men and women in our service; we have a job to do, and babysitting is not one of them. We must hire individuals with developed character and values already in place.
 

A recent article involving a young volunteer firefighter gathered from a newspaper reported that the following:

In some ways, Daniel Parsons fit the profile. He was young, white, and working a low-end job as a dishwasher. He was a rookie firefighter, joining a volunteer company in New Milford in Susquehanna County only six months earlier. And at Bingham’s Restaurant, where Mr. Parsons worked, he was apparently feuding with the other employees. But in this new fire recruit, who passed a background check, Columbia Hose Company Chief Dwayne Conklin did not see an arsonist. “He gave no indication he was capable of this,” Chief Conklin said. When the 19-year-old Mr. Parsons was charged Monday with setting the inferno that destroyed the landmark Bingham’s and two other businesses, he became the region’s latest high-profile firefighter arsonist, police allege.

In January, retired Scranton firefighter Thomas Gervasi was accused of torching apartments and a car he owned for insurance money in 2008.

Benjamin Christensen, a Whites Crossing firefighter, is serving 10 to 20 years in state prison for setting seven Upvalley fires that caused $3 million in damage starting in 2007.

Firefighters who start fires, and why they do it, have long been part of an American obsession with true crime. But within the city departments and small-town companies that these arsonists betray, the subject is almost taboo. Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner Edward Mann said anyone who commits arson should have the book thrown at them. “But if you’re a firefighter and you’re convicted of arson, you ought to have the entire damn bookcase thrown at you,” he said. [2]

 
The firefighter arsonists whose stories have been reported in the news and mentioned above and at the beginning of this article described reasons for fire setting events as anger, revenge, monetary gain, poor judgment while under the influence of alcohol, and for attention (to be a hero). This does not necessarily mean that these individuals have a mental or biological disorder. However, the reasons stated are symptoms of mental and biological disorders and can be screened for with some success. Many departments have a comprehensive screening process, including a background check and a psychological assessment, while other departments do only a cursory check. Using a comprehensive hiring practice can provide the best people for your fire department.
 

BEST PRACTICES

This article is not about making every fire officer a psychologist, but we had better become aware of the problem firefighter arsonists have created for our industry and seek tight or tighter controls in prescreening candidates who want to be either a volunteer or a career firefighter.

Hiring a firefighter is a complicated process. Volunteer fire departments may have greater difficulty because of the difficulties in recruiting and retaining volunteer firefighters. However, based on these statistics of firefighter-caused arson and other problems arising from troubled firefighters, we need to look beyond the candidate who is breathing and has a pulse and employ a comprehensive approach recruiting, hiring, and retaining our volunteer and career firefighters.
 
The hiring process starts with active and communitywide recruitment of potential candidates. There are a number of published ways to attract qualified men and women into our profession. It is imperative that during recruitment, the expectations of the jobs are posted. These expectations must go beyond the obvious and include the requirements for a strong work ethic, honesty, compassion, an even temperament, and commitment to public service. Also included in the job description should be the honest statement about the actual call volume and types of calls as well as the amount of downtime and the potential for boredom. The fire service must take some responsibility for sustaining the myth of the excitement involved in being a firefighter and “slaying the dragon.”
 
The next step is to implement a formal written application process. It needs to be comprehensive enough so your department can get a sense of the candidate’s background, prior or current work history, and other pertinent facts related to the candidate. Your written application cannot be discriminatory and needs to remain gender and race neutral; you can ask birthdates if you have a minimum age requirement. You need to ask if they have a criminal or felony background or any driving infractions. You also need to seek permission to do a background check, and there should be a section on the application that indicates that the organization will do a background checkand that the candidate needs to sign a release. Do not make a hiring decision based on the candidate’s statement on the application. You need to follow up with a comprehensive background check. It costs a few dollars but is well worth the effort. The background check should be done early in the hiring process. It weeds out many candidates; occasionally, one candidate with a questionable background may slip through. It depends on the screening process and those who are completing that task.
 
After screening the applications, the next phase is a written evaluationof the candidate’s ability to read, write, comprehend simple information, do simple math, and follow directions. There are hundreds of validated tests on the market, and you can subscribe to agencies to provide written evaluations. Many times organizations will create their own written tests that have been found to discriminate against certain ethnic groups or genders, and fire departments have found themselves on the wrong end of a lawsuit. The test should be a combination of multiple-choice questions and a written component. The reasons for this are that in your recruit training academy, candidates are going to have to read and comprehend a lot of technical information and write out reports and other documentation. If they cannot read and write, is there room for them in your organization? If you have someone with a validated reading disability and the candidate notifies you of that disability prior to taking the written exam, the department is required to provide certain accommodations to include a reader and provide a longer time frame to accommodate the reading disability. You can score these written evaluations or use a pass/fail system.
 
After the candidates passes the written test, they should undertake a job-relatedphysical abilitytest. You are not looking for someone “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, [and who] and can jump buildings in a single bound,” [3] but someone who has the basic physical ability to successfully do the job. I recommend the CPAT as the basis of this segment. It is a valid and achievable testing standard.. It may be a little pricy, but if you can, share the expense with your neighboring departments. This test should be pass/fail. I strongly urge you not to create your own physical ability test; it usually ends up discriminating against women and individuals who are vertically challenged and others, since the test will usually be based on strength, which, in many cases, has been classified as discrimination against a certain protected class.
 
After your candidates successfully passes the written test, I strongly recommend a psychological evaluation by a qualified psychologist. Find someone in your community who understands what firefighters do for a living and for the community. There are several specific tests available that will provide the department with the most comprehensive profile of that candidate’s psychological makeup. The psychological makeup highlights the characteristics and behaviors present in individuals who set fires or participate in other risky behaviors. Candidates the psychologist considers to be of moderate or high risk must not be allowed to be a part of your department. This testing is highly confidential; the information on which the hiring decision is based must pass only between the psychologist and the fire chief. It’s okay to say no to some candidates who fail the psychological assessment. It is better to spend a few dollars (about $250 to $400 per candidate) than to spend millions in claims when the, as employees, start fires and engage in other egregious behavior affecting your department.
 
Some departments will perform the medical physicalbefore the psychological testing, which is not a real issue. The point here is that it’s extremely important to have your candidates go through a medical physical. Statistics indicate that more than 45 percent of the firefighters who die do so because of cardiac arrest, and volunteers are at the head of this statistic. You can pick up a lot of information pertaining to the candidates from the physician about detectible and correctible disease, like heart disease, hypertension, and other medical conditions. .This critical medical information is generally kept between the firefighter candidate and the physician, but the decision to retain the candidate as a firefighter is the fire chief’s decision. The physician should indicate that the candidate is physically capable of doing the job. If there are treatable medical conditions that would endanger the candidate at some point, the candidate needs to get them resolved and then possibly come back later for hiring. I also suggest that your organization retain the services of a physician who knows what you do for a living and as a volunteer firefighter.
 
The physician can reference many standards when performing the evaluation. They include National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program; NFPA 1582, Standard on Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments; and NFPA 1583,. Standard on Health-Related Fitness Programs for Fire Department Members. There are many more state standards. Make this information available to the physician.
 
Now your candidates have made it through the screening process, and they are ready for recruit academy. There are many ways to conduct a recruit academy. My goal here is not to describe a recruit academy. This is the best time to observe the ability of your volunteer firefighters to grasp firefighting skills and knowledge. It is also a good time to evaluate their personality, particularly their ability to problem solve, handle frustration, and interact with other people and to note any other issues that may become problems in the future. A good evaluation system can help your training officers assist the candidates to perform or to weed out those who are not grasping the concepts, who do not follow orders, who get upset when frustrated, and who have difficulty being a team player, as well as other behaviors we do not want in our fire service.
 
After academy and throughout the firefighter’s time with the department, there needs to be regular evaluations of their performance and behavior. You also need to look at behavior outside of the department, since in many communities, the public is increasingly scrutinizing firefighter behavior. A regular performance evaluation is a good tool for recognizing drug or alcohol problems and for immediately putting into place corrective actions for these problems as well as for issues involving domestic violence, arson, or other egregious behavior. Consider involving a psychologist if behavioral issues cause concern. Problem behaviors are not always clear in cause and effect. Behaviors that may warrant dismissal may be signs that the firefighter may be burned out, depressed, or suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and needs intervention from a psychologist. Performance evaluations are extremely important and are not a pencil-whipping exercise. Evaluations do not have to be lengthy; they can be short and concise. Do some research; there are many examples of performance evaluations on the market. 
 
To put this all together for a successful outcome, it is imperative that there is organizational education and strong supervisor oversightof the problems facing departments today. Nothing will kill support for a department more than if your firefighters were convicted of committing arson, drunk driving, committing domestic violence, selling drugs, molesting children, drinking on duty, and other egregious actions. It is imperative that all of your firefighters are “supervisory” qualified and know the signs that warn of a firefighter’s heading down a destructive path. It is also important that the firefighters know that they can report a problem firefighter without repercussions and that there is help for the problem firefighter.
 

Finally, the administration needs to have strong and consistently enforced policies in place for resolving departmental problems and to have the strength to cut firefighters loose if they cannot be counseled or disciplined to follow the organizational goals and expectations. In other words, the buck stops at the chief, and the chief needs to make those hard decisions.

REFERENCES 

1. The FBI’s UCR program defines arson as any willful or malicious burning or attempting to burn, with or without intent to defraud, a dwelling house, public building, motor vehicle or aircraft, personal property of another, etc.

2. The Scranton Times Tribune; Jeremy G. Burton, April 17, 2010.

3. DC Comics

JOHN K. MURPHY, JD, MS, PA-C, EFO, FACC retired as a deputy fire chief after 32 years of career service. He is a practicing attorney, whose focus is on employment practices liability, training safety, employment policy and practices, forensic evaluation on fire operations, internal investigations and consulting on risk management for private and public entities. His past fire service experience has been as a Navy Corpsman, a paramedic firefighter for more than 20 years, and a chief fire officer with responsibilities as the chief of training, chief of operations, and a promoter and facilitator of health care and safety issues in the fire service. He is a licensed physicians assistant and Fellow, American College of Clinicians, practicing since 1977 with a focus on family practice and emergency care. He is a frequent speaker on legal and medical issues at local, state, and national fire service conferences and a frequent contributing author to Fire Engineering.

BETH L. MURPHY, MA, retired as a firefighter after 12 years of service to pursue and complete her doctorate in clinical psychology. She is a practicing clinician with a focus on workplace stress, PTSD, cancer survivors, and TBI. Her population focus is on police and fire agencies, as well as military personnel. While in the fire service, she was a firefighter/EMT and member of the department’s hazardous materials response unit. She was also a member of the Peer Support Team, which provided day-to-day support for fire personnel as well as critical incident stress management (CISM). As a doctoral student, she worked with a varied population, including juvenile fire setters, the severely and chronically mentally ill, and individuals and families affected by cancer. She is a contributing author to Fire Engineering.

No posts to display