According to the National Fire Protection Association, an average of 56,300 fires are started each year as a result of children playing with fire. While most juvenile firesetting begins as innocent curiosity or experimentation, youth fire misuse can also be a sign of underlying emotional issues or mental health disorders. And regardless of motive, 81 percent of children will repeat their firesetting behavior if it’s left unaddressed. Without intervention at the first signs of potential firesetting tendencies, these children (and everyone around them) remain at high risk of injury or death.
Fire Safety Education for Juvenile Firesetters
As a programming device, fire safety education (FSE) is one of the most frequently used interventions for juvenile firesetters. But in order to be effective, the curriculum must go deeper than standard fire prevention presentations for children and provide information specific to youth-firesetter activity.
U.S. Fire Administration, for example, highlights several successful youth firesetting intervention programs across the country, including the River Valley FIRE (Firesetting Intervention Response & Education) Program in Merrimac, Massachusetts.
Designed to address fire misuse in youth ages three to 18, FIRE makes a marked distinction between traditional fire prevention programs and those offered to youth who have already engaged in firesetting behavior. Boasting a low recidivism rate of 4 percent, it focuses on a child’s individual interest in fire alongside education about fire awareness, its uses and consequences, and personal responsibility.
Similarly, the Pennsylvania Office of the State Fire Commissioner has a FSE for youth fire misuse called “A Spark of Knowledge.” In addition to fire safety training designed specifically for the juvenile firesetter, it includes an educational component for their caregivers.
When Education Is Not Enough
FSEs are most effective for younger, lower-risk children (nonpathologial and crisis firesetters) who lack a basic understanding of the principles of fire and its dangers. While education is essential for reducing continued firesetting behavior of all types, there are many instances in which some kind of social-psychological and/or mental health treatment is also necessary.
For example, research has shown that fire misuse is a behavior often exhibited by children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Because children with ADHD process information differently than neurotypical children, they may not be able to grasp the concepts of an FSE program without special accommodations for their disabilities, such as a referral to a psychotherapist or psychiatrist. In most cases, fire misuse interventions that do not account for children’s learning or mental health disorders in such a way will not be terribly effective.
President of Board for the Burn Prevention Network