Part of preparation is knowing who may be a potential youth firesetter.
Because there are so many different variables, trying to describe one specific ‘who’ is impossible. These variables include age, motivation, the type and number of previous fires set, the ignition material used to set the fire, and if he set the fire alone or as part of a group. What is known is that the impact of youth firesetting is significant to everyone -- the youth, her family, and the entire community.
There are two generally used types of classifications when evaluating a youth firesetter: WHY the fire was set and how much RISK there is of more and larger fires being set by that youth.
Curiosity (fire interest or experimental): The compulsive firesetters. Statistics show these are the most common type of youth firesetters. They are generally between the ages of 3 and 10, so they often do not understand the consequences of fire-play. Interventions may include fire-safety education, evaluation for ADHD, and parent training.
Cry-for-help (troubled or crisis): Consciously or subconsciously they use fire to draw attention to a stress in their lives and can be any age. Common problems underlying this type of firesetting are depression, ADHD, or family stress. Interventions may include cognitive-behavioral therapy, treatment for depression, medication consultation, and family therapy.
Delinquent (criminal): They youth often shows little empathy for others but also tends to avoid harming others. Typically 11-15 years old, they may cause significant property damage, and often show other common aggression and conduct problems. Interventions may include behavior management, empathy training, relaxation techniques, and treatment for depression.
Severely Disturbed (psychologically or emotionally disturbed): They have a fixation on fire, including youth who may want to harm or kill themselves. Interventions may include intensive inpatient or outpatient cognitive-behavioral therapy and social skills training.
Cognitively Impaired: Developmentally disabled or impaired youth who tend to lack good judgment but do not do intentional harm; however, significant property damage is common. Interventions may include special education, intensive fire education, and behavior management.
Sociocultural: Set fires primarily for support from peers or community groups, such as those fires set during riots or in religious fervor. Interventions may include fire-safety education, traditional psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and family therapy.
Some Risk: Fires set by these youth are often their first, are totally unintentional, and happen because the youth are curious and enjoy experimentation. Both the adults and youth in the family may not have a good awareness of what could happen, and there is often easy access to ignition tools and minor lapses in supervision.
Definite Risk: For the youth, firesetting is recurrent, purposeful, and intentional, although resulting damage may or may not be intentional. Often the number and riskiness of the fires increases; the firesetter begins using accelerants, or endangers people. The youth may have poor social skills, poor peer relationships, or neurological limitations. Quite often the firesetting behavior can be related to a family, school, or personal stress/crisis. A lack of supervision and a lack of family understanding of the danger of fire are common.
Extreme Risk: Not only is the firesetting recurrent, purposeful, and intentional, but other behaviors of the youth may also seem extreme. Often fires are set with criminal implications. During the incident (or as its purpose) one or more items burned may be symbolic, and injury potential and property loss is high. Because of many issues, ongoing stress/crisis may overwhelm the family; complex solutions are needed for both the child and the family.
KEY TO REMEMBER IS THAT FIRE INTEREST, MOTIVATION, AND LEVEL OF INVOLVEMENT MAY VARY. NO MATTER WHAT, THOUGH, ALL BIG FIRES START SMALL!
A single, unintentional spark can become a devastating fire.
Being aware of risk factors of potential youth firesetters and mitigating possible opportunities can help prevent fires being set.
Parents or guardians, teachers, and even friends are on the front line of recognizing current or potential youth firesetters and prevent opportunities for a youth to set a fire.
The following are signs and characteristics common to youth firesetters. Having one or two characteristics does not automatically mean a youth is going to set a fire or has been setting fires. However, numerous studies have found that they are characteristics frequently shared by youth firesetters.
Known risk factors for potential firesetters include:
Sudden learning or behavioral problems in class or at home
Extreme mood swings and emotional outbursts
Evidence of cigarette, drug, or alcohol use
Hyperactive and impulsive behavior, have learning disabilities, thrill-seeking, have difficulty communicating verbally, socially awkward and isolated
Regular/constant sad, depressed, hostile, or even aggressive or violent behavior
Symptoms of having been or being physically, mentally, or sexually abused
Close friendships with known firesetters
Signs that a youth has already been setting fires include:
Burn or scorch marks around the home
Has or has hidden a lighter or matches
Burns, particularly to fingers or hair
A high interest in or curiosity of fire
Spending time with friends who start fires
Fires in grass or trash around the home and neighborhood
Adults have a responsibility to help keep firesetting opportunities from occurring. Some of the ways to do this are:
Keep all fire-setting materials out of reach and sight, preferably in a cabinet with a child-proof lock
Understand and teach how fast fire can spread and become dangerous
Have your children help check the smoke alarms
Supervise all children well enough to know there isn’t a problem
Plan and practice a fire drills at home, including how to contact 911 (DO NOT actually contact 911 unless there actually is an emergency)
Do not believe the myths that a child can control a small fire, or that it is normal for children to play with fire and they will outgrow it, or that punishing a child for setting a small fire will stop him from doing it again
Have a Fire and Life Safety person talk to your child if you notice several of the risk factors or clues, even if you think no fire has been set
If you want more detailed information, the Rapid City Fire Department Fire and Life Safety Division (FLSD) is happy to present to your group about how to prevent firesetting in the community, signs of possible firesetting, and what to do if you believe a youth is setting fires. We can tailor our presentation to the audience from a 20-minute classroom presentation to a Parent-Teacher Organization meeting to youth ministry training.
The Rapid City Fire and Life Safety Division (FLSD) offers a free, education-based intervention for youth ages 3-17 and their parents or guardians.
The Youth Firesetter Prevention and Intervention (YFPI) Program is a nationally recognized process used for helping youth firesetters. It is particularly important for youth who have started a fire or been involved in a fire incident, but any child who is considered ‘at risk’ of starting fires will benefit. In fact, the best results can happen when a youth is seen the first time that his parent, guardian, or teacher has concerns about the youth possibly setting a fire.
The program uses a nationally recognized process with certified Youth Firesetter Specialists to gather pertinent information, evaluate the child and the situation, and educate and/or refer the youth to other professionals in youth services. The process includes:
Use of a consistent form to gather initial information from the youth and his or her parents or caregivers;
Separate interviews of the youth and the parents/guardians (60-90 minutes total) that are used to gather details on the youth and the family, including information on sudden stresses in the family, if the youth has had a history of setting fires, and how the youth is doing in school;
Evaluation of the results and discussion of what interventions are best for the youth;
Appropriate interventions that could include fire-behavior education, self-evaluation and accountability exercises, home safety education with assignments that take around 30 minutes in class plus follow-up at home, or they may need further evaluation by a mental health professional;
Follow-up visits with the youth and at least one guardian/parent to review assigned home tasks (15 minutes) and, if appropriate, complete further education (30 – 45 minutes). The majority of the interventions require these two meetings, though some situation may need additional in-person visits;
A 30-day No Fire Play contact between the youth and the interventionist, which helps put the youth in a position to earn back the trust of adults, to be a leader, and to complete positive actions for the family and community.
General information on the case is reported to a national database including age, gender, and our fire department. It does not include the youth’s name or address. We ask permission, in writing, at the beginning of the intervention to discuss the youth’s progress with involved organizations, such as those that required attendance or will conduct recommended interventions.
(Youth Firesetter Prevention and Intervention)
Who is a Youth Firesetter? A ‘Youth Firesetter’ is a young person from ages 3 to 18, who has used some sort of fire-starting tool, regardless if a fire is actually started. Two primary means of classification – WHY and RISK – are used to determine whether a youth is or potentially may become a firesetter.
Parent, teachers, fire fighters and friends can all help by knowing the characteristics and risk factors of potential and active firesetters. A youth showing several of the characteristics and/or risk factors is a cause for concern, especially if they are a radical or unexpected change from the normal behavior of that youth.
By spreading the knowledge and skills to help prevent youth firesetting, the RCFD gives educational presentations on fire uses and dangers to parents, adults in social service agencies, and children in schools.
Rapid City Fire Department (RCFD) Fire and Life Safety Division (FLSD)uses a process based on national standards to identify, interview, educate, and find resources to help the youth and her family, including individually tailored education. Through this program, the entire community is being assisted, as well as those immediately impacted by a youth-set fire and the firesetter herself; the focus is to stop the youth from setting fires and be a productive member of the community.