Slowly, the fire service is shedding light on a situation that occurs rarely but which is nevertheless serious: some firefighters intentionally start fires. A very small percentage of otherwise trustworthy firefighters cause the very flames they are dispatched to put out. The incidence of illegal firesetting among the nation’s fire and rescue personnel is not known precisely. Fire incident data does not generate many details about incendiary fires, and a suspect’s occupation is rarely, if ever, included in the database. Overall, relatively little research has been conducted on arson compared to other types of crimes. Even less information data is available about arsonists who are also public safety personnel.
Most fire departments will never experience having a member indicted for arson. But for those that do, the impact is almost always significant. This report delves into the problem of firefighter arson and explains what some communities and states are doing to prevent it. These jurisdictions have taken bold steps by publicly stating that the problem exists, and they have acted to solve it. Given the far-reaching effects that criminal firesetting by a firefighter can cause, awareness and action are clearly necessary.
The impact of firefighter arson can be severe. People die or are seriously injured, including fellow firefighters who respond to the call. Homes are destroyed. An arsonist from within the fire department can disgrace the whole department, and his actions diminish public trust. Several states that have experienced the crime of firefighter arson have developed new legislation that directly impacts the prosecution of firefighters accused of arson. Firefighter arson task forces have been organized to prevent the crime. Education, training, and appropriate criminal background and reference checks are key components of the programs. Some of these proactive efforts are highlighted in this report to give fire service leaders ideas for their own departments.
Research conducted in the early 1990s by the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCVAC) located at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, suggests that a “tell-tale” sign that a firefighter may be setting fires is a sudden increase in nuisance fires within a company’s “first due” area. The research also indicates that firefighter arson offenders tend to be relatively new to the department, typically less than three years as a member. The FBI study of 25 cases of firefighter arson in seven U.S. states and one Canadian province showed that the number one motive was excitement, especially among young firefighters who were eager to put their training to practical use, and to be seen as heroes to fellow firefighters and the community they served. In that study, 75 firefighters were found to be responsible for 182 fires.
Firefighter arsonists often escalate their fires over time. The NCVAC report indicates that firefighter arsonists, as is typical of most arsonists, generally start with nuisance fires, such as dumpsters, trash piles, or vegetation. Eventually, the firefighter arsonist graduates to other targets that have more damage potential, such as, abandoned vehicles or unoccupied structures. Sometimes even occupied structures are threatened by the arsonist’s actions. The FBI notes that one firefighter set fires to storage sheds beneath the stairs of occupied apartments.
In reviewing cases of firefighter arson for this report, it was apparent that one of the primary motives for firefighters who commit arson is to be seen as a hero. They may be the first to call in a fire, the first on the scene, and one of the most eager, excited, and enthusiastic members of the response team. Their main reason for lighting the fire is so they can appear as a hero, either by being the first to spot the flames, or by rescuing people and saving property. Extreme cases of firefighter arson involve fires set in occupied structures. When a firefighter sets fire to an occupied structure, the potential for being a life-saving hero is even greater. In North Carolina, one firefighter would set fire to an occupied house, and then return to the scene and rescue the family. His need for excitement, being worshiped, and getting attention predominated over any concern about the terrible danger to which he exposed the occupants.