USA — In the hope of increasing awareness and also reducing the number of children playing with fire, this week has been designated Arson Awareness Week by the U.S. Fire Administration.
The USFA, established in the 1970s, is a part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and acts as national leadership for fire and emergency services in prevention, preparedness and response.
The theme for the year is preventing youth fire-setting.
From 2005 to 2009, children playing with fire accounted for 56,300 fires annually, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
These fires resulted in 110 civilian deaths and $286 million in property damage per year.
Arson, defined as any willful or malicious burning of a building, vehicle, wildland or property of another, does not account for many fires.
According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, 24 fires in Lake and Geauga counties were ruled arson in 2009.
But because of the seriousness of the crime, most local fire departments have programs to reach juveniles before they commit arson or stop them from doing it again.
Tony Zorko, the juvenile fire-setter program coordinator for the Wickliffe Fire Department, said kids can be sent to the program through the juvenile court system or by their own parents if they find a child playing with fire.
The first meeting with the child includes the parents and family, and the group answers a series of questions, Zorko said.
These answers are then rated to determine how much of a risk the juvenile is.
“For most kids, it’s just a curiosity thing,” Zorko said.
The department then provides the entire family with fire safety education and can recommend a course of action, such as recommending a psychologist for the child, Zorko said.
Capt. Tom Orban with the Painesville City Fire Department has been an instructor at the Ohio Fire Academy teaching about juvenile fire setters since 1992.
During his time with the department, he has seen a large decline in the number of juvenile fire-setters who come through his program.
“In the early 1990s, we saw probably 20 to 25 a year. Now, it’s only a few per year,” Orban said.
Most fire-setters start at a young age just being curious about fire, and then the activity can escalate in steps to eventually having motives for the actions, Orban said.
“It seems to be ingrained in our genetics to be fascinated with fire,” he said.
The earlier children start learning about fire safety, the better off they will be, Orban said.
If parents see a child expressing an interest in fire, Orban suggests letting them use some fire tools under strict supervision so they can experience the correct way to use them.
“Fire is a tool, not a toy,” Orban said.
Gene McElhaney, a firefighter and juvenile fire setter educator with the Mentor Fire Department, said fire-setting is often a small piece of a bigger puzzle.
McElhaney said he has seen a lot of youths who have some type of attention-deficit disorder and most are male.
“There’s often something going on at the home that was out of the ordinary,” McElhaney said.
Even with all of the education and programs offered by fire departments, parents need to be involved to truly affect a child’s behavior.
“Ultimately, I don’t think we can stop anyone on our own,” Zorko said. “I can give all the education, but it comes down to reinforcement at the home.”
Many times, the problem can be solved by something as simple as more supervision.
“If you know what kids are doing, most likely they’re not going to set Dumpsters on fire.”