Researchers Strive to Understand Why Firefighters Set Fires

In recent weeks, firefighters from Vermont, Iowa, New York and Oklahoma have been in court for allegedly setting fires. An estimated 100 firefighters are arrested for arson each year, reports the St. Louis Dispatch.

“It happens more than you think,” said Daniel Hebert, who investigated many firefighter arsonist cases during his time as a federal agent in Louisiana. “Really, it goes on way more than anyone knows. We don’t know about most of them.”

But the ones who are caught, they are sources of fascination. They are contradictions. Researchers have been working for years to learn what drives firefighters to become arsonists, or whether these are actually cases of arsonists drawn to be firefighters. The FBI has gotten involved. So have universities. Profiles have been drawn up and tossed aside. Learning what drives a firefighter to set fires has become a dedicated field of study.

In the case of the Lincoln County firefighter, experts saw something familiar.

Dustin Matthew Grigsby was a volunteer fireman in Old Monroe. The town had been stung by several suspicious fires this year. The last one came Saturday. A security camera recorded a white car parked outside a garage moments before the structure burst into flames.

The county fire marshal had noticed the fires were occurring in a circle. He advised authorities to look for the car inside the circle. Police found a white Chevrolet Lumina in Grigsby’s driveway. Police said he told them he “needed a release” and wanted to be able to respond to the fire to put it out.

Grigsby is 19. Firefighter arsonists are generally 17 to 25, according to research by Matthew Hinds-Aldrich, an assistant professor of fire science at Anna Maria College in Paxton, Mass. He was the lead author on the 2011 National Volunteer Fire Council “Report on the Firefighter Arson Problem.”

Grigsby’s dad is a fire district captain. That’s not unusual, Hinds-Aldrich said. “You can imagine, how does Junior make a reputation for himself? How is he going to have the stories to tell that his dad does?”

And Grigsby’s alleged motivation is common, too, Hinds-Aldrich said.

He wanted to fight a fire. So he allegedly started one.

In some rural districts many firefighters are volunteers, so the basic benefit of the job is not a paycheck. They train for hundreds of hours, then they go back to their small communities and do nothing.

“There’s a boredom element to it,” Hinds-Aldrich said.

Some are true firebugs, people who have an unhealthy love of fire. That’s rare. James Pharr, who teaches a Fires & Explosions class at Eastern Kentucky University, recalled one case where the mother of a firefighter turned out to be the arsonist. Her son was a contract firefighter — he got paid only when he was called out.

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