A 15-year-old New York teen made headlines this week after he doused his two-story home with gasoline and set it on fire, killing his two adoptive brothers and father.
In the aftermath of tragedies like this one, fire fighters, fire investigators, mental health practitioners and others connected to these cases are left with too many questions.
Why did this young person choose a fire incident as a mechanism of expression? Why fire?
The explanations are often times complex, varied and hard to understand.
The IAFF Charitable Foundation is facilitating a focus group on juvenile fire setters and prevention efforts as a part of a grant it received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). A group of fire fighters, burn care professionals, mental health practitioners and educators gathered at the IAFF headquarters in Washington, DC, to establish a framework for a national, standardized, comprehensive database for local and regional juvenile fire setting programs to use as a resource.
“For more than 36 years the burn community has said, ‘We need a National Juvenile Fire Setter’s Database,” says Tony Burke, coordinator of the IAFF Foundation Burn Fund. “The IAFF Charitable Foundation recognized the need to truly understand the scope of the Juvenile Fire Setter problem in the nation. “As prevention programs are being cut all across the nation, it is more crucial and urgent than ever before to develop an implementation plan — which is the goal of this project through collaboration of the subject matter experts we brought to DC today,” says Burke.
If law enforcement can’t get juvenile fire setting behavior under control, the effect on medical and community costs and emotional pain is enormous, experts say.
According to FBI statistics, 47 percent of intentional fires set between 2005-2007 were by people under the age of 18. About 3 percent of arrestees were under the age of 10. Between 2004-2008, statistics show that 47 percent of people who started home fires by playing were five years of age or younger.
Early intervention and finding ways to identify children who are at risk are essential, say leaders. A national database will help aid communication and assist other social agencies to help lower the rate of recidivism among youths that have engaged in fire-setting behavior.
There is no set profile of a juvenile fire setter. Research collected indicates males ages eight to 14 have a higher reported incident rate of setting fires. Motives vary for each incident, but fires are often triggered by an emotional event, such as neglect or abuse.
This week’s efforts at the IAFF are an ongoing project that will also include a two-day national summit in 2012. Representatives from organizations such as the International Association of Fire Chiefs, National Association of State Fire Marshalls and National Fire Protection Association — among other groups — will participate in the summit. In addition, representatives from federal agencies, including the Health and Human Services Department, Justice Department and Transportation Department, will be in attendance.