Child arsonists often are reacting to destructive family conditions. Fire officials can help turn the situation around.
The gloom of another lonely night smothered the small A bedroom like a cold, moist blanket. Occasionally, light from a passing car would penetrate the darkness, and for a moment, the bare walls would spring to life with grotesque and ghastly shadows. Then they would plunge into an even deeper darkness than before. The room was still and cloaked in heavy silence.
Usually the small girl sitting like a statue beside the window would have been hiding from her imagination under a pile of blankets on her bed. But not tonight. There was something more important taking place that held her attention, something even more frightening than the ghoulish fantasies of a child afraid of the dark. Staring blindly into the raindrops hitting the window, she sat absorbed in the nightmare that was taking place in another part of the house.
All evening, her mother and father had been fighting. It began at the supper table just as the family sat down to eat, slowly at first— accusing questions and vivid replies. The kids knew’ it was coming. They could feel the tension mounting between their parents. Then, in a sudden spurt of their parents’ anger, they were sent to their bedrooms, and the battle exploded into a full-fledged w’ar. Like opposing armies, the parents pummeled each other with barrage after barrage of angry and hatefilled words.
The air rang with the bitterness of their voices. Five-year-old “Angel” heard every word but understood nothing. It was the uncontrolled rage behind the words that frightened her so much. She had no idea what might have happened to cause her parents to be so angry. She only knew they were going to hurt each other.
She was torn between the desire to defend her parents from each other and the urge to do something drastic to stop them. She thought for only a moment before reaching for the discarded matches she had found in the restaurant parking lot. Without hesitating, she opened her bedroom door and set the linen closet on fire. Then she walked calmly back to her bed and tucked herself in. In her mind, the fire would soon be discovered and her parents would cease to fight. She would have solved her parents’ problems.
Angel’s room is still cloaked in heavy silence. But now, there is an opening in the ceiling near where we are standing. Rafters and laths are smoke-blackened and charred. Tiny droplets of rain trickle in like uninvited guests.
Around us the water is flowing from a pair of 1 1/2S. The water has made a black, soupy lake by the front door. Firefighters are trudging through it, the ooze splashing past their black boots. As the water cascades down the porch steps, it is full of debris: hairbrushes, pieces of curtains, clothing, and chunks of woodwork.
Outside there is the noise of the pumpers, the hissing of sprayed water, and the shouted command of the captain over the crackle of an angry, frantic radio.
But it is quiet in Angel’s room. There are five of us, all firefighters. We are strong, tough men, maybe a bit callous at first appearance. But actually, we are all gentle, caring men caught up in a violent occupation.
Our tired, red-rimmed eyes go from one blackened face to another, then to the soot-enhanced outline of a little girl lying on her bed. We have done everything just the way we have been taught. Ninetytwo years of experience collectively, but this time we were too late. We all feel we have failed.
We attacked the fire frantically, and we made a beautiful stop. But there on the bed is the tiny outline that we had not counted on. We were just too late.
I often tell this true story to other firefighters while trying to enlist them as juvenile firesetter counselors. Often I am told that the job is too emotional, too involved, and they don’t want to let their emotions show.
Well, we all know that there is no such thing as an unemotional person.
Each of us is emotional. Each of us has feelings, one way or another, every conscious moment of our lives. Lack of expressiveness doesn’t mean lack of emotion; most of us spend our lives in pursuit of the enjoyable emotions, seeking after three intangibles: happiness, love, and peace.
I think Angel was trying to find at least one of these before setting the fire. When children cannot find love, peace, or happiness in a family situation over a long period, problems begin to develop. When this happens, children often show low tolerance for frustration and are prone to intense, aggressive outbursts.
To most children, a firefighter is a hero, racing confidently to a raging fire, quelling the intense flames, making a daring and dramatic rescue. Firefighters can use that hero image to help the Angels of their community.
In Ypsilanti Township, Mich., for example, nine firefighters have trained in juvenile firesetter counseling by taking courses at the National Fire Academy, Eastern Michigan University, or both. Although there are two people who do most of the counseling, the others provide an important supplement during school vacations.
During the past three years, we’ve counseled 200 children. The process involves three questionnaires filled out separately by the parents and children to provide information about family environment and give us a chance to establish a rapport with the kids. Certain “flags” among the answers—such as indications of sexual abuse, beatings, and frequent, recent firesetting—let us know a case needs to be referred to a mental health professional. In less severe situations, we offer an average of four to six hours of education and counseling aimed at making changes that will end the firesetting.
One such case involved a mother whose husband had abused both her and her older children. When she was at work early on Saturday mornings, one of the older children, who objected to having cartoons on television, was beating the younger kids. They, in turn, were setting fires out of anger. The woman then followed through on our suggestion to get an outside babysitter, and the firesetting stopped.
After counseling a child whom arson investigators have identified as a firesetter, we recommend to the juvenile prosecutor that the case be kept out of court. Some of our cases, however, come to us at the prosecutor’s request. They usually involve plea bargaining that sets up counseling and, sometimes, community service as the disposition of the case.
None of the kids we’ve counseled has become a repeat firesetter. Our success demonstrates how the firefighting heroes children know through the flashing lights and wailing sirens can become a child’s quiet hero, as well.