An old problem that keeps claiming new victims, juvenile firesetting has been demanding more attention in recent years. Its complexity and the various resources needed to address this problem in a meaningful way have, in these days of financial constraint. made it one that is bigger than the fire service, often bigger than the community, and in some respects even bigger than many states.

“Fires set by children playing with fire is the leading cause of death in preschool children,” stresses I)r. John Hall, assistant vice president of fire analysis and research at the National Fire Protection Association. “It is a trend going in the wrong direction. It is the only well-defined cause of fire deaths to show an upward trend during the decade [1980s].”

Some startling statistics put this problem in perspective: cording to Clyde A. Bragdon, Jr., former fire administrator of the U.S. Fire Administration. During that period, moreover, children playing with fire was one of the seven leading causes of home fires in this country, and one in four of the fires that killed young children was started by children.

  • Even’ year, about 180 people die in fires started accidentally by children under the age of five (up from 70 in 1984), according to the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission.
  • More than 300 deaths and 4,000 injuries resulted from children playing with fire during 1986 alone, ac-
  • Fires and flames ranked second among the causes of death for fiveto 14-year-olds during 1988, according to the National Center for Health Statistics (automobile accidents was first).

The problem appears formidable in light of statistics that show that between 60 and 75 percent of all intentionally set fires are started by juveniles and that 55 percent of all arrested arsons are under the age of 18 and 11 percent under the age of 10.

Compounding the tragedy of these fires is the potential for death and injury they represent for the children themselves, who don’t know how to save themselves from fire; many hide in closets or under beds instead of escaping.

Juvenile firesetting is not a new phenomenon, of course. “The problem has always been there. We’re making it more visible,” says Pat Mieszala, president of the national consulting service BurnConcerns, Inc., and an expert in juvenile firesetting problems. “I see a different attitude among professional people; they’re focusing on the problem.”


“Many experts in the field of fire investigation believe that up to 50 percent of fires of undetermined origin are also in fact incendiary ( intentionally started),” estimates Donald Carner, Factory Mutual Engineering’s arson coordinator. He explains that although fire investigation has seen tremendous improvements in the past 10 years, investigators still have great difficulty pointing conclusively to the source of many fires. “W hen investigators can’t prove that a fire was intentionally set, that fire tends to be classified as one of ‘undetermined origin.’ Thus, the true number of incendiary fires is probably higher than figures indicate,” Garner adds.

Fire service and other professionals specializing in juvenile firesetting problems, moreover, say the numbers of these child-related fires may be even greater: Only a small number of children identified as having set a fire are charged, and even fewer are arrested.

“There is not enough information relative to juveniles or arson in general,” says Joe O’Dowd, vice president in charge of loss investigation for the American Reinsurance Company. “The statistics are not as accurate as we would like….” Consequently, he notes, “A lot of arson attributed to juveniles may or may not be the case.”

Many fire departments, however, have been awakened to the scope of juvenile-set fires in their areas, and many have established programs to identify these children and to eliminate (or at least significantly reduce) tlie chance that these children will continue to set fires. In addition, the public awareness efforts that usually accompany an effective community program have brought the issue to the attention of parents, schools, police departments, mental health professionals, the juvenile justice system, and other community groups, increasing the number of referrals in communities with established programs. Parents and other relatives, for example, referred 36 percent of the children enrolled in the Madison (WI) Fire Department’s Children and Fire program. The next highest referrals were from fire investigators (31 percent) and fire companies (17 percent).

“Awareness around the country has been growing since incidents are being documented I through the established programs); the figures are more realistic,” agrees Paul Schwartzman. a mental health professional who has been instrumental in the development of the Rochester, New York. Fire Related Youth (FRY) program and now affiliated with National Fire Service Support Systems, Inc. “Localities,” he adds, “are responding to these findings; and initiatives of the federal government and intervention programs available from the l .S. Fire Administration have increased momentum for the problem overall.”

Since being established in 198″’, for example, the Bergen County Juvenile Fire Prevention Program (New Jersey)—which grew out of the initial efforts of fire inspectors George E. Lucia of the Hillsdale (NJ) Fire Department and William Lynn of the Paramus (NJ) Fire Department— has seen referrals grow’ from 10 the first year to 33 as of September 30 of this year. The referrals were made by the police department (30.1 percent), the fire service (26.8 percent), the juvenile justice system (22.8 percent), social services (11.4 percent), parents (7.3 percent), and school principals (1.6 percent).

“After we started to look at the numbers in our community carefully, we realized we had a real problem,” observes Jerold Bills, fire investigator and FRY’ coordinator. “A survey we conducted in the schools showed that 4() percent of the kids had played with matches at one time and at least 14 percent were still playing with fire. If these numbers are reliable, we’re only seeing about 10 percent of the children involved in fireplav in Rochester.”

More than 1.200 juvenile firesetters have been part of the FRY program since its inception. (The program officially started in 1979 but really got underway when FRY’ started w ith the University of Rochester in 1982.) It identifies the children, assesses their motivation for setting fires, and implements an appropriate strategy. Bills now also is affiliated with National Fire Service Support Systems, Inc., along with Schwartzman; Robert Crandall of the Rochester (NY ) Fire Department; and Robert E. Cole, Ph D. All were instrumental in developing the FRY program.

Firesetters come from all ethnic, social, and economic backgrounds, and an episode of firesetting in some children can be triggered even by incidents that normally might be considered commonplace and minor, such as being punished for misbehaving or being envious of the attention given to a sibling. A significant number of firesetters, however, are “innocent” youngsters who accidentally start a fire while playing with matches or lighters.

Problem firesetters set fires deliberately; they have varying degrees of difficulties that manifest themselves in behaviors ranging from malicious mischief or vandalism to pathological activities. They also may be severely disturbed or delinquents. This behavior is evident primarily in males between the ages of seven and 18. Psychological pain, anger, revenge, the need for attention, and excitement are the common motivators. They and their families need immediate attention to prevent a recurrence of the firesetting behavior. Pathological firesetters usually require comprehensive in-patient or residential treatment.


The greatest number of juvenile-set fires, however, are not caused by problem firesetters. They are caused by “innocents” (some have been younger than two years old) who set the fires accidentally by playing with matches, a lighter, or some other potentially incendiary source.

Touted as a prerequisite for learning and as a sign of intelligence, curiosity, unfortunately, also is the catalyst for death and injury for numerous Americans, especially preschool children. It is a primary cause of firesetting, especially among young children. Recent studies of children who started fires seen by the Rochester Fire Department, for example, show that more than 60 percent of the youngsters were curious and did not set out to destroy life or property. Of the 119 children referred to the Children and Fire program of the Madison (WI) Fire Department during 1990, 73 percent were engaged in fireplav.

Inquisitiveness about fire is the natural response of a child setting out to explore his environment, experts agree. The problems arise because these children do not understand that fire can be dangerous and destructive. Unless they are given a supervised outlet for their curiosity about fire, many of them will experiment on their ow n and learn about fire’s potential for devastation the hard way. To make matters worse, these children generally play with fire in places that are hidden and usually contain many combustibles, such as the bedroom or closet, and often become victims of their own fires. Immediate action that includes educating the children about the nature of fire, how to prevent one in the home, and how to escape if one should occur is essential.

Three ingredients usually are present for the most common type of juvenile firesetting (fireplay) to occur: curiosity (all children are curious), ready access to the fire source (such as matches and lighters), and lapses in adult supervision, Schwartzman (FRY) points out. “Children feel safe in their bedrooms where they usually go to experiment with matches; and the parents, believing that their children are safe in their bedrooms, tend to check on them less often while they’re there.”

“When children play with fire and nothing happens, they develop a false sense of control over it,” say Crandall and Bills of FRY. “This feeling encourages children to continue experimenting, which perpetuates an ‘atrisk’ situation.”

Some researchers use the category “fire interest” for children who start fires because of curiosity. Among them is the Institute for Social Analysis (ISA), which has been conducting the National Juvenile Firesetter/Arson Control and Prevention Program (see sidebar on page 58), sponsored by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in conjunction with the L’.S. Fire Administration. Fire interest can begin as early as age three and may continue until age six or seven. This behavior typically is observed in young boys, although girls also may exhibit it.

The term fireplay also refers to unsupervised experimentation with matches or other fire-starting materials. The majority of children in this group are boys between the ages of five and 10 (some serious fires have been started by toddlers as young as 18 months), and they are motivated by curiosity. The fires they set are unintentional. Their fireplay behavior must be detected early, and appropriate remedial steps can reduce the risk of future firesetting incidents.

Some approaches for the curious firesetter. Among the strategies recommended for altering the behavior of this type of firesetter are the following:

  • Flave the children participate in supervised, fire-related activities that teach them how to engage in fire-safe activities.
  • Parents and other caregivers should answer questions and supervise experiments involving the responsible, supervised use of fire as soon as the children begin to show an interest in fire. Specifically, parents should demonstrate that fire is a tool, not a toy, and they should allow the children to satisfy their curiosity about fire by allowing them to use it appropriately under close supervision. The National Institute of Burn Medicine’s pamphlet “A Match is a Tool” suggests, for example, that children can help light candles on the dinner table or learn to build a safe camp fire. Lighting candles on a birthday cake can be another teaching activity.

“Children see adults use fire to light cigarettes, camp fires, and candles. But fire does not play such an integral role in the child’s daily life. Thus, parents probably do not perceive a need to teach children fire ‘skills.’ But the children are still fascinated with fire. And that fascination may be fed by the curiosity that comes from something seen but not personally experienced and explained,” observes researcher Michael Baizerman (1984).

“It is practically impossible to solve the child fire problem by focusing on preventative measures while ignoring the curiosity and fascination attached to fire,” researcher Ditsa Kafry concludes (1987). Merely telling children not to play with fire actually piques their curiosity.

Remove the ignition sources. Some of the juvenile-set fires are started by accident, such as when a child rolls a lighter across a table or chair. “Some parents actually make their children play with cigarette lighters,” says Anthony J. Maviglia, assistant fire chief of the Hillsdale (NJ) Fire Department and fire service coordinator for the Bergen County Juvenile Fire Prevention Program. “Actually, no child has a use for matches or a lighter.”

The Consumer Product Safety Commission recently issued subpoenas to the nation’s six largest lighter companies asking for samples of any child-resistant lighters being developed. The objective of the new designs is to make them more difficult for a child of five years of age or younger to operate, reducing the potential for the child’s getting burned or starting a fire.

The request for child-resistant lighters was made to the federal government in 1985 by a nurse in Kentucky who became concerned by the number of children she saw with injuries resulting from fires caused by disposable lighters. Disposable lighters now have voluntary warnings advising adults to keep them away from children. A federal rule mandating child-resistant lighters is not expected to go into effect before late 1993.


As already has been suggested, social factors play a crucial role in the firesetting behaviors of some children. “Juvenile firesetting is a social issue. It is not going to be resolved overnight,” observes Jay Williams, chairman of the Insurance Committee on Arson Control. “Progress is slow, but look at the nature of the problem. It’s complex.”

Problems in the home. Among the situations found to contribute to firesetting are violence in the home and a home where the parents are divorced or living with another partner. Sometimes referred to as “crying-for-help firesetters,” these children use fire to rebel or get attention. They are unaware that their actions are a cry for help, and their fires are reactions to emotional or physical difficulties or even disruptive events such as a divorce, the death of a relative or pet, the family’s move to another location, or physical or sexual abuse.”

Firesetting can be a symptom of more serious underlying problems as well; and, points out Dick J. Bower, deputy fire marshal of the Kirkland (WA) Fire Department, it commonly is found in the backgrounds of criminals, especially serial killers. David Berkowitz, the confessed “Son-ofSam” murderer who terrorized New Yorkers from 1974 to 1977 when he killed six people and wounded seven others, for example, reportedly set more than 2,000 fires and was responsible for more than 300 false alarms.

“People don’t realize that one out of three children who come into an in-patient psychiatric hospital has had a history of firesetting. Some of these children might even know how dangerous fires are but are so caught in the behavioral pattern that they can’t keep away from it,” says Linda MishiStrattner, a clinical psychologist and consultant. ⅜

“We re seeing more and more kids with adult problems,” observes Bower. “A number of young firesetters don’t get the treatment they should. They get suspended or light sentences or are put through some fire department program. We try to break the chain [of firesetting].” Bower notes that while awareness is growing, many fire departments still are reluctant to get involved with juvenile firesetters because they don’t understand the children or, in some cases, they encounter problems with the families. Children in the Kirkland program are referred to counselors from the private sector who have agreed to charge clients on a sliding scale based on income.

Media and other influences. A factor that could influence children, especially threeor four-year-olds, to play with fire is what they see on television, some critics say. “Cartoons are getting to be disgusting,’ even Mighty Mouse,” observes Gerald Van Campenhout. staff commander, Fire Prevention Bureau. Green Bay (WI) Fire Department. “They are filled with space misadventures, explosions, machine guns, and the use of fire as a form of power.” In Green Bay, he says, four problems arose in connection with an “Arson for Profit” television episode. The youngsters used the same method shown in the program to blow apart a vacant house. “Children today are exposed to violence even on covers of magazines at store checkout counters,” he adds.

In another incident, Van Campenhout says, two juveniles 12 and 10 years old “put a two-foot burn” in a living-room wall using long-stick matches and hair spray.

Elizabeth A. Micca-Vidad, public education specialist for the Lake Havasu City (AZ) Fire Department, agrees that television programs and movies are sending children the wrong message about fire. “It’s very hard to convince kids that fire can injure, kill, and destroy when they watch movies in which Freddy Krueger is a hero (in “Nightmare on Elm Street”), dolls are burned (“Child’s Play”), and TV hero MacGyver uses fire many times to escape from danger.”-*

Among the other societal influences Bower (Kirkland, WA) says affects the behavior of these problem firesetters in his area are gang activities, some heavy metal music and groups, and satanic cults that use candles in their rituals and then burn property to get rid of the evidence.

Indifference. This is another reason offered for the escalating juvenile firesetting problems seen in recent years. This rationale holds that Americans are indifferent to fire as a national problem and are careless about it in their personal lives. Consequently, youngsters get the message that fire safety is not a primary concern. Proponents of this view point to the lack of fire extinguishers, fire detection systems, and preplanning for fire emergencies in many homes as evidence.

Lack of information. Many children do not believe that the fires they set are dangerous because they never have been taught about fire. Even 11-, 12-, or 1 3-year-olds often think they can control a fire they start by patting it. They don’t understand how a fire can smolder, making them potential victims of their ow n

“During our research, we found that the children didn’t understand and weren’t being taught information critical to the firesetting problem,” Schwartzman (FRY) reports. “The children were being taught how to respond to a fire, but they did not understand that their own activities could have destructive consequences. We would ask, Can one match destroy your home? They would answer no. They could not comprehend how one little match could do that; they were relating to seeing dad trying to light the barbecue grill with several matches because the wind kept extinguishing the match’s flame, for example.”

Many parents and caregivers are ignorant of the extent of the problem. Based on a questionnaire distributed in New York City schools, for example, the fire department found that for every child its program counsels, 15 to 20 more have experimented or are experimenting with fire.

Parents are children’s role models for fire safety just as they are for other life skills, note many sources. They, therefore, must practice fire safety themselves. As soon as an adult notices that a child is showing a fascination with fire, the child should be taught that fire is a tool, not a toy, and that it can be dangerous. Adults also must keep cigarette lighters, matches, and any other items with incendiary capability away from children, in places where they cannot be reached.

Some parents do not regard their child’s playing with matches as a problem because “all kids play with matches.” Ninety-seven percent of the children involved in New’ York City’s Juvenile Firesetter Intervention Program said that matches or lighters were always within easy reach.

“It’s so important that we work with the parents and child, particularly the parents, so that they realize that they are very important teachers in their children’s lives,” stresses Nancy Estepp. manager of public education for the Division Bureau of Fire Prevention and Education of the Prince George’s County (MD) Fire Department. “From the child’s perspective, there is a very fine delineation between perceiving fire as a toy or as a tool. Parents must keep temptation away from their children.”


Identifying juvenile firesetters and ultimately controlling their behavior starts at the fire scene. All firefighters must be alert for clues that indicate a youngster may have been involved in the fire, and the matter must be pursued so that the child is placed in an intervention program and, if needed, given professional counseling.

“We need grass-roots accuracy to correctly assess the nature and extent of the juvenile firesetting problem,” stresses Garner, “and local firefighters must be trained to [determine] the causes of fires.”

“Juvenile firesetting has been shoved aside all these years,” acknowledges Van Campenhout (Green Bay). “We re just waking up to it. We have had to improve our fire investigation in detail; we used to let things go by the wayside.” Van Campenhout, who also serves as the president of the Brown County Investigators Task Force, says his department’s program, which has been in existence for three years, got its impetus when three young children died in fires set by juveniles in two houses that were four blocks apart. Two of the children died in one fire.

“Fire chiefs sometimes have difficult decisions to make regarding fires involving juvenile firesetters,” Maviglia (Hillsdale, NJ) notes. But, he cautions, “Projecting the statistics applicable to our program to the United States in general, the average fire chief has a 50-50 chance of being wrong in not pursuing the help of a mental heath professional for a child involved in fireplay. It’s a pav-me-now or payme-later situation.”

Maviglia explains that the numbers of Level 1 children, the designation given in the Bergen program to children who generally have made a mistake regarding fireplay and who once properly educated will not repeat their performance, and Level 2 children. those for whom fireplay is a symptom that shows “more is going on in their lives,” are “running really close” (47.7 percent and 48.6 percent, respectively). These categories can be considered “statistically even,” he explains. “It [this breakdown] illustrates the dilemma the average fire chief is in when a decision is made not to pursue a child who is involved in fireplay because the chief knows the family or has no reason to believe anything obvious is wrong,” Maviglia says. (In addition to Levels 1 and 2, the program also has identified Level 3 children, those at high risk for starting fires and who usually require in-patient treatment at a specialized facility.)

Certain protocols must be followed by the fire department when investigating fires set by juveniles and attempting to identify firesetters. “1 think fire professionals generally have the compassion to be kind and to try to understand. But there are some things that are easy to forget [during interviews such as] using fire service jargon or asking questions a child might see as blaming.” notes MishiStrattner. Fire professionals should ask questions that are “open-ended, but with enough structure to get the necessary information.” she explains. “We realize now that we can be very successful with these kids. There is renewed interest in the subject because it is one area where mental health professionals can help.”

“The investigator is trained to look at certain factors such as who was in the area when the fire started, the locations of the people in the area, and the reaction of the child involved [Is he/she scared? Did the child try to put out the fire?],” Schwartzman explains. “This information helps the investigator to determine whether the fire resulted from a child’s blatant curiosity during a period of lapsed parental supervision and things just got out of hand, juvenile fireplay, or firesetting.”

Sometimes investigators find obvious neglect or horrendous conditions in a home, and the investigator must be sure to note all observed factors and to make referrals if the findings warrant it, Schwartzman advises.

One way fire departments can assess the size of the juvenile firesetting problem in their jurisdictions is to go through the fire incident reports of the preceding three or four years and look for indicators that the incidents might have been child-related, suggests Schwartzman. Among these indicators are the time of day the fire occurred and its location. Research has shown that children usually start fires in the daytime and in their bedrooms or the living room sofa, he explains. If the department’s form doesn’t provide space for entering this information, he says, the incident report form should be revised to accommodate the data. 1’his information also can be gathered by talking with other firefighters. Many will recall an incident that wasn’t documented but gave them the impression that the fire could have been caused by a juvenile. Many of the referrals made to FRY, Schwartzman adds, come from battalion chiefs of the Rochester l ire Department, who have been trained to look for the indicators of juvenile involvement when responding to fires. (Recruits at the local training academy receive two days of training that covers interviewing and other topics related to juvenile-related fires.)


Programs that train firefighters in the appropriate investigation and interviewing techniques and how to develop a program that incorporates various resources, including the mental health community, are offered at a number of sites, in addition to Rochester, across the country. They range from short seminars to two-day or longer programs at training academies. In the state of Ohio, for example, the Fire Prevention Bureau for the Ohio State Marshal trains members of the fire service how to recognize that a firesetting problem exists in their communities and how to identify the children who need help. “Fire service personnel in the community also are taught how to deal with the fire-curious child so that the child doesn’t have to play with fire to learn about fire,” explains Terry J. Weber, the bureau’s chief. The education is given through a two-day program at the Ohio Fire Academy, classes at the state fire school, and courses presented on a regional basis.

Among the other topics covered is how to establish a community support system that involves the juvenile justice and law enforcement systems and medical services. These components, Weber interjects, are needed if a program is to continue. Characteristics of families and children, methods for determining which children should be referred for counseling, and procedures for establishing a referral process before its need arises also are covered. Since education is a vital component of the program, course attendees are taught how to use the available instructional materials, some of which have been created by the bureau.

The Kirkland (WA) Fire Department offers a two-day course developed with an $850 grant from the Northwest Fire Investigators Association; it is presented to departments on a regional basis. The departments pay for the expenses of the program presenters and a registration fee.


Curricula addressing the dangers of fire have been developed for children from preschool to high-school levels. The goal is to teach youngsters at preschool and lower elementary levels that fire has good and bad uses and that it is not a toy. Children are taught to stay away from medicines, knives, and other dangerous objects, juvenile firesetting specialists point out, but parents and teachers generally do not teach them about the dangers of fire and safety-related issues. Children at the higher grade levels are taught fire prevention and safety through various programs made available to the schools by local fire departments and through community-awareness activities.

‘I he Kirkland (WA) Fire Depart – ment recently instituted a Learn Not to Burn® pilot program for grades two and four in its community school; the teachers are enthusiastic about the program. Bower says. “It’s tough to get into the schools, though,” he says. “Teachers are asked to incorporate many programs into their curriculum, last year, however, the principal of one of the elementary schools called me concerning five second graders who came to school with matches and lighters. I put these children through our program.”

A fire department member goes into the schools on a regular basis, Bower explains. “In a year or two,” he continues, “we are planning to institute an ‘Adopt a School’ program in which one firefighter will be assigned to a school in the station’s response area.” The firefighter might observe a fire drill or distribute public education information, Bower says. The “Adopt a School” program has worked well for the local police department, he adds.

FRY ultimately developed a curriculum that could be integrated into course subjects, such as language arts, for more than 50 classrooms. ‘File programs include fire safety education aids such as audiotapes of songs teachers can use. “Children must be taught how to use fire safely in a consistent manner by professionals who know the appropriate developmental learning stages,” Schwartzman stresses.

An example of how important it is to construct and present material appropriate to the children’s ability to understand it correctly is given by Sharon Gamache, executive director of the Learn Not to Burn® Foundation. A recent research project involving threeand four-year-olds revealed that the children did not understand the intended message of a 30-second televised public service announcement and that it could be risky to show matches or lighters in messages for these age groups on television. “Just showing matches and lighters in the ads could make these items more attractive to children,” she says. “There’s a big difference between teaching on television and in the classroom for these age groups.” Fouryear-olds understand a little better, she explains; but overall, she says, it’s wise to avoid showing negatives. A child, for example, may not hear the word “don’t” and be given a message opposite to the one intended. Gamache concludes: “We can’t rely on spoken messages alone for these children; they must enforce the visual. Something isn’t always better than nothing when teaching these children about fire safety. Some thinking process should go into developing programs for preschoolers. They need positive reinforcements especially when they are exposed to cartoons and movies that depict fire scenes.”


In addition to the problems already mentioned, another area in need of attention is mental health, a component that is vital for the success of firesetting intervention programs. “Firesetting is not a priority; the mental health community has been focusing on anti-drug programs,” observes Patricia T. Mieszala (BurnConcerns). In general, the mental health field has little or no information with which to work, she explains. “In some cases, the mental health facilities send parents to the fire people. Up until now, it’s been the fire departments doing a solo. We’ve been crawling; there are many voids.”

Among the needs cited by Mieszala is a centralized data source relative to the educational programs and therapies being offered to the youngsters. “Without follow-up,” she points out, “meaningful progress is difficult.” State programs overall are poor, and liability considerations often preclude firesetters from being admitted to inpatient facilities, she says.

“Some of the mental health professionals to whom children are being referred today may be responding to these firesetters as we at FRY did 10 years ago,” says Schwartzman. “Two attitudes regarding firesetting drove the field then, as they had for decades: The kids will grow out of it, or the children involved with fire are seriously disturbed.” The National Fire Service Support Systems, Inc. recently developed a handbook to guide mental health professionals counseling children whose involvement with fire has gone past the curiosity stage.

The National Juvenile Firesetter/Arson Control and Prevention Program is attempting to rectify some of the statistical gaps and to coordinate programs instituted in various localities across the country to address the problem of juvenile firesetters. This study, being conducted by the Institute for Social Analysis (ISA) and the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), began in early 1988. The project is now in the last of four stages: the testing of prototypes of successful programs at pilot sites.

Another gap in the juvenile firesetting issue is programs for adolescents with serious firesetting problems. Most local programs do not provide for these youngsters, and many inpatient facilities hesitate to admit them because of the potential hazards they present. Most of these youths are referred to the juvenile justice system, which, says Mieszala, has a minimal understanding of how to handle these kids. She explains that the courts do not see firesetting as a priority because of the many other problems they must handle and because they do not see many of the firesetting children. (These children represent a small minority of juvenile firesetters, and many of this minority often do not get to the courts for various reasons, including failure to identify or charge them at the local level.)

The older, more serious juveniles in some states are sentenced to correctional facilities and are treated within the facilities under the authority of the juvenile justice system or a comparable agency. “More effort must be made to address the serious problem of juvenile firesetters; and different types of juvenile firesetters must be recognized, diagnosed, and treated differently,” stresses Dr. Hall (NFPA).


“The ideal approach to addressing the problem of juvenile firesetting is to involve a group of people who w ill come to the table and lend their expertise for the good of the child: a core of people willing to give and who do not have to dominate,” offers Maviglia (Hillsdale, NJ). He cites specifically the need for mental health services. “A partnership between the mental health community and the fire service should get started across the country.”

“Arson task forces or strike force programs can increase their success rates through more detailed and thorough interagency organizational arrangements and policies,” says NFPA’s Dr. Hall. “In many communities, police and fire departments could work together more effectively, and other public agencies and private groups should be regularly involved.”

Bower (Kirkland. WA) reports that he has had some success identifying local firesctters through working with juvenile detectives and prosecutors. Many of them, he says, are not familiar with the juvenile firesetting problem. The police department, he explains, sees more cases of juvenile firesetting than the fire department; it sees them in the forms of malicious mischief and property crimes. Moreover, he adds, these incidents usually do not get into the fire department’s statistics.


“If enough communities had intervention programs, I think we would see deaths from children-caused fires go down,” stresses Weber (Ohio). “We had some 60 deaths in Ohio last year from these fires. We found that some of these children were known firesctters. Someone knew the children played with fires and either did nothing about it or did something that was not effective.”

Weber goes on to say that intervention programs that provide counseling services have helped 90 percent of the children referred. In Ohio, even small departments can have a program, he adds: “One of the things that’s intriguing is how fast most children can learn (to stop).” “You can teach them how to control firesetting behavior very often in one interview,” relates Eugene Bumpass, counselor for juvenile firesetting children in the Dallas and Fort Worth departments’ programs.

Most of the programs for juvenile firesctters consist of two parts: fire intervention and fire prevention, which are of equal importance.

Early intervention is extremely important, notes Van Campenhout (Green Bay, WI). His department’s program, in existence for three years, has had more than 75 children referred to it. “We ask parents to contact us as soon as a problem is suspected, before a fire is set. We want to catch it as soon as possible,” he explains.

Members from the bureau visit the homes and have gotten good results. “I am usually offered coffee,” Van Campenhout says, “and I accept the invitation even though I may not want the coffee because I like to sit in the family’s kitchen. If l sit in the proper place, 1 can see things that help me to assess the problem, such as whether there is more beer than food in the refrigerator.”

He also asks for a tour of the house, which he says usually is willingly given by the parents. During this “walk-through,” he looks for means of escape from a fire, the presence of operable smoke detectors, whether lighters or matches are kept around the house, whether doors are blocked (most times accidentally), and whether clothes are thrown around. When he returns for a follow-up interview, he incorporates any safety problems he noted during the tour of the house in a generic way, without direct reference to their house.

Some programs offer a sponsorchild type “Big Brother” arrangement based on the Firehawk program, which now is out of existence. This approach brings young firesetters together with firefighters on a one-toone basis. The firefighters, volunteers who undergo three training sessions before being paired with children, are assigned the children by the program director. The goal is to help the child develop a responsible attitude toward fire and to appreciate the work firefighters do in putting out fires.

Referrals have grown in many communities that have programs. “We have had a greater percentage of children referred this year than in the past,” reports Nancy Estepp (Prince (ieorge’s County, Ml)). “Part of this may be due to increased awareness. We held a seminar in February directed at school teachers, juvenile justice, and the social and psychiatric services.” She says that the department’s program has been very successful and that there has been only one case of recidivism. The department uses follow-up phone calls to parents, who can call the department for help.

The Kirkland (WA) Fire Department program was started in March 1988, and 20 children with reported firesetting problems were screened the first year. There have been 45 referrals since that time. Bower reports no recidivism has occurred among the first 20 children put through the program, and two cases among the others.

Enforcement. Should the departments encounter resistance from parents whose children need the intervention programs, the departments . take a hard stance. “We don’t believe in soft-soaping,” asserts Van Campenhout (Green Bay, WI). “We tell the parents, If you don’t have enough concern to refer the children [to the program) yourself, you could become involved in the court system through the fire department.’ ”

“It is important that a professional approach be taken in these situations,” Schwart/man advises. “The investigator must have the facts to back up the findings. These facts then become the ammunition when law enforcement becomes necessary.”

“A casebook from an average fire investigation usually lacks documentation by emergency service personnel who first respond to the scene,” observes Gary J. loll, a lieutenant with Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue in Oregon. “The observations of these individuals can be just as important to the investigation or an ensuing court trial as the notes, photographs, and evidence taken by investigators after the fire has been extinguished.”

To aid with enforcement when needed, some fire officials work in conjunction with the juvenile justice department. In Rochester, for example, arson investigators have peaceofficer pow ers and can make arrests, explains Schwart/man; and in Ottawa, Canada, an arson investigator travels with a police sergeant who serves as a youth officer. Another arrangement that works, he says, is to have a trained arson investigator accompanied by a member of the sheriff ‘s department or the county’s juvenile court division.

lire departments are the logical choice for programs to address the juvenile firesetting situation. The firedepartment is the grass-roots mechanism that can reach out to resources within the community, and beyond, to create programs that will provide all the services needed to meet the needs of the affected juveniles. Even departments with limited funds can establish a program. They should consult the national fire service associations and other organizations experienced in these programs (the names of some are included in the resource box on page 54). Savings also could be realized by recruiting and training volunteers from the community to help with screenings, presentations to schools and other community groups, and clerical work. As Weber of the Ohio State Marshal’s Office has observed: “Our outlook on the juvenile firesetting program is that it is a fireprevention issue. We feel that we can make a great deal of headway with intervention programs. There are not many things the fire department can do that can be 90 percent effective.”


  1. Meier, Barry. “U S. Insists on Progress Report on Child-Resistant Lighters,” The New York Times, May 18, 1991, 30.
  2. Bragdon, Jr., Clyde A. “Curious Kids Set Fires,” Fire Control Digest, Feb. 13, 1989, 1-3.
  3. Cecchini, Marina. “A Community Response to Juvenile Fire Setting,” New Jersey Municipalities. Jan. 1990, 6,7,31-34.

“Treatment for the Juvenile Firesetter,” Record, Jul./Aug. 1989, 914.

Juvenile Firesetting Counseling Today: A Sample of Programs from Across America, draft, May 1988. Federal Emergency Management Agency, May 1989, 1.

  1. Bussewitz, Walter B. “Children Playing with Fire Get Help,” National Underwriter, Feb. 11, 1991, 4,26.


  1. Mostrom, Kathy. “A Study of Children Who Set Fires,” Fire and Arson Investigator, June 1989, 47.



  1. Woodsen, Wayne S., Berkey, Martha Low. Children and Arson. 1984. Plenum Press, New York and London. 52.53-

Woodsen, p. 11 3.


  1. Fire Engineering. Nov. 1991, 37.

Woodsen, p. 197.





  1. Kruh, Nancy. “Burnin’ for Attention,” Fire and Arson Investigator, Dec. 1989, 19,20.
  2. Toll, Gary J. “Documenting the First Stages of Fire,” Fire Engineering, Jan. 1990, 49-51.

Additional references:

Arson: Ten Years Later, A report of the 1986 National Arson Forum, Battelle Memorial Institute, Insurance Committee for Arson Control.

Bower, Dick J. “Juvenile fire setting intervention.” Fire Chief, March 1990.

Cole, Robert E., Laurenitis, Loretta R., McAndrews, Maureen M., McKeever, James M., and Schwartzman, Paul. Juvenile Firesetter Intervention, Fire Related Youth Program (FRY ), Rochester, New’ York, 1983.

Cole, Robert E., Grolnick, Wendy S., McAndrews, Maureen M., Matkoski, Kathleen M., Schwartzman, Paul I., Bills, Jerold, and Crandall, Robert. Children and Fire Rochester Fire Related Youth Project, Progress Report, Volume II. 1986. University of Rochester, Cole-Schwartzman Associates, City of Rochester Fire Department, New York.

Grolnick. Wendy S., Cole, Robert E., Laurenitis, Loretta, and Schwartzman, Paul. 1990. “Playing With Fire: A Developmental Assessment of Children’s Fire Understanding and Experience.” Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 19:2, 128-135.

Gross, Carol. “A Department Responds to Juvenile Firesetters.” NFPA Journal. Jan./Feb. 1991.

Flail. John R., Jr. Children Playing with Fire: U.S. Experience, 19801988. National Fire Protection Association, April 1991.

May, W illiam A., Jr. “More with Less: Twelve Steps to Building an Arson Prevention Program when the Funding’s Tight.” Fire Engineering. June 1988, 62-70.

Sullivan. Gary S. “But I Don’t Conduct Interviews…” Fire Engineering Ian.

1989, 36-40.

Whitman, Lawrence E. 1979. Eire Prevention. Chicago:Nelson-Hall Inc.

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