Each year in this country, fires set by children are responsible for more than 100 fire deaths, nearly 1,000 painful burn injuries, and hundreds of millions of dollars in property loss, according to the United States Fire Administration. From 2007 – 2011, an average of 49,300 fires involved children misusing fire occurred throughout the United States. Children are often the victims in these fires. A recent example occurred on September 22, 2014 when an 8 year old boy passed away in a shed fire in Hyannis, Massachusetts. This tragedy started as the result of a dare when a friend of the deceased boy lit a piece of paper on fire and then tried to extinguish the fire with a pale of what was believed to be water, but turned out to contain gasoline. [Read more]
While curiosity about fire is natural, fires set by children are dangerous and deadly.
The danger of fire is greater than ever because of the high number of petroleum-based building materials. Fires burn quicker and hotter and smoke is more toxic than in the past because of these materials. In the hands of juveniles, fire can be deadly. Whether the child or adolescent was playing, experimenting or purposely setting fires, firesetting is extremely costly.
The misuse of fire has many variables including age, motivation for firesetting behavior, type of fires set, ignition materials used to set the fire, and the child’s understanding and limitations of fire. Firesetting behavior is usually “a cry for help” and may be a symptom of a problem manifested through stress and crisis in their lives. The stress or crisis experienced by juveniles may include abuse, bullying, a recent separation or divorce of parents, home foreclosure, moving to a new community, or the death of a pet or loved one.
Why Do Kids Set Fires?
Youth firesetting or the misuse of fire by children isn’t necessarily arson. The best way to understand why children set fires is to look at their motivations for firesetting. For most young kids, the motive is experimentation and curiosity. Motives can involve curiosity, thrill-seeking, willful intent to cause destruction, or by children who suffer from mental or emotional problems.
There are four common factors that influence firesetting behavior among children and adolescents. These factors impact all types of firesetting and include:
- Easy access to ignition materials. Easy access to ignition materials often proves deadly for children who start fires. In many homes where a child has been involved in starting a fire, the child easily discovered the ignition source or already knew where it was located and how to obtain it.
- Lack of adequate supervision. The lack of adequate supervision is a factor that can influence all ages of firesetting among children and adolescents. Parents are often shocked to discover their child has engaged in firesetting over a prolonged period of time.
- A failure to practice fire safety. A failure to practice fire safety is a factor that often affects children and their parents in the following ways:
- Young children often lack understanding of the dangers associated with firesetting and safety rules about fire.
- Older children and adolescents may not have received school-based fire safety education about the dangers of the inappropriate use of fire, penalties for such behavior, and direction on what to do if a fire occurs.
- Parents / Caregivers may not be aware of the significance of youth firesetting, appropriate fire safety education, penalties, or what actions to take in the event a fire occurs. They may not be aware of local youth firesetting prevention and intervention programs.
- Easy access to information on the Internet. Information regarding firesetting, designing explosives, and how to do tricks with fire is a problem that demands attention. Technology has made explicit media available to youths on many dangerous and often illegal activities. They are able to experiment with fire or incendiary materials and instantaneously post results for the world to see and oftentimes replicate.
Parents, caregivers, and public educators, whether they are from the fire department or the school system, can build an informed foundation by teaching fire safety at an early age. Teach children of all ages that fires, even small ones, can spread quickly.
Myths and Facts Concerning Children and Fire
Myth: A child can control a small fire
Fact: Most fires start small, but can become uncontrollable quickly.
Myth: It is normal for children to play with fire.
Fact: It is not normal for children to play with fire. Curiosity about fire is normal. Use of fire without an adult’s knowledge, approval, or supervision is dangerous.
Myth: Firesetting is a phase children will outgrow.
Fact: Firesetting is not a phase. If a child is not taught fire safety, the firesetting can get out of control easily. It is a dangerous behavior.
Myth: If you burn a child’s hand, he/she will stop setting fires.
Fact: Purposely burning a child’s hand is child abuse and is against the law. The reason behind the firesetting must be discovered and addressed.
Myth: If you take a child to the burn unit to see burn survivors, he/she will stop misusing fire.
Fact: Going to the burn unit only instills fear, and does not teach a child anything about fire safety. More importantly, we need to be sensitive toward burn survivors who are trying to recover emotionally and physically from their burns.
It is important to understand myths concerning children and fire. Children need to be educated about fire and have their motives understood so that proper interventions can be used to stop the firesetting behavior. Youth Fire Intervention programs should refrain from using “scared straight” tactics or show burn victim videos as their sole educational interventions.
Finally, make sure you have working smoke alarms on every level of your home including inside and outside each bedroom. Replace smoke alarms that are over 10 years old. Practice two ways out of any room in case of a fire and locate a meeting place to await the fire department’s arrival once you and your family are safely outside. Fire Departments across West Michigan are hosting free, informational open house events so you and your family can be fire smart. For a complete listing visit: http://wotv4women.com/2015/09/23/free-events-highlight-fire-safety/.
If you need more information about youth firesetting prevention and intervention, to request a free smoke or carbon monoxide alarm or learn about other fire safety programs in your area, contact your local fire department or visit www.escapetv.org or www.escapeinc.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (269) 492-3340.
This article was written by Lt. Michael McLeieer, Executive Board, Michigan State Firemen’s Association, National Fire Academy Adjunct Instructor.
Michael McLeieer has been in the fire service for 20 years and currently serves as the Public Information Officer and Lieutenant in charge of Community Risk Reduction for the City of Olivet Fire Department. He is the co-author of the National Fire Academy Youth Firesetting Prevention and Intervention course and a community risk reduction expert and instructor for the new Managing Officer Program delivered at N.F.A. in Emmitsburg Maryland.
In June 2014, McLeieer was elected to the Board of Directors of the Michigan State Firemen’s Association.
McLeieer is also the Program Coordinator for Operation Save A Life with ABC’s WOTV 4 in West Michigan. This partnership between WOTV, Kidde and his non-profit charity E.S.C.A.P.E. provides free smoke and carbon monoxide alarms to West Michigan fire departments where they are installed in at-risk homes.
On May 20, 2013, McLeieer was the recipient of the Liberty Mutual Insurance National Firemark Award for Community Service and Public Education. This prestigious and highly competitive award is given annually to one U.S. firefighter who has demonstrated an outstanding commitment to reducing home fire deaths through public education in his community and nationally. This award earned his former department, the Merrimac (MA) Fire Department a $10,000 stipend which was utilized to further expand the fire prevention outreach efforts across the community where he served for 15 years as the department’s Fire Prevention Officer before returning to the Michigan fire service.