Arson is the number one crime committed by juveniles, The US Fire Administration reports that one third of all set fires are begun by children, one third of all children that are killed in fires have set the fires themselves, and fire is the leading cause of deaths in the home for children under the age of five in the U.S.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, children playing with fire is the fourth leading cause of fires that kill. Arson is the second leading cause of residential fire deaths and accounts for approximately 25% of all fires in the United States. Juvenile arson accounts for over 50% of arson arrests, the highest FBI indexed crime involving juveniles. Hundreds are seriously burned or injured each year when children who are curious start fires.
Children and Fire
Children are fascinated by fire; the warm glow of a fireplace, flames flickering in a camp fire, blowing out birthday candles, watching the repetitive habit of an adult lighting up a cigarette. Children as young as 2 years may show an interest in fire. With this natural fascination and curiosity comes the task for parents/caregivers to take fire safety precautions with younger children and to educate and train older children in fire safety.
Whether a child is merely curious about fire, making a cry for help or engaging in delinquent behavior, children playing with fire is extremely dangerous. Children can be helped. They must received the right kind of help though. It is not a phase that they will grow out of, it is not a matter of boys being boys. Yelling at them, burning their fingers or other such methods will not be effective. The reason a child plays with fire must be addressed in order to successfully address the problem. Each child must be individually assessed and receive a treatment program that may contain one or more of the following components: educational, psychological, and community service.
What is Fireplay?
Fireplay happens when a child, curious and unsupervised, plays with matches, lighters, an open flame or a hot stove. This playing accidentally starts a fire that may result in death injury and/or property damage.
The most common circumstances that lead children to play with fire include:
- Matches, lighters or open flames within easy reach
- Lack of parental or adult supervision
- Natural curiosity about fire and a desire to experiment
- Boredom and searching for something to play with
- Previous fire play activity (the fire was easily extinguished and not discovered by an adult)
- Most children who get involved in fire play can be successfully taught by parents or caregivers to channel their fire interest to competent fire safety behaviors and avoid this extremely dangerous behavior.
In some children, fascination and fireplay turn into intentional and repeated firesetting behaviours. These children usually have underlying psychological or social problems, and account for 40% of all children who start fires. Helping these children includes stopping firesetting behaviour immediately and correcting the underlying problems that caused the behavior. Juvenile firesetting is a dangerous behavior that cannot be stopped without appropriate intervention, intervention that addresses why the child sets fires.
Warning Signs (Red Flags)
ABOUT THE CHILD:
- Child has ADHD and family is having trouble managing this problem
- Child has had fire safety education, knows that firesetting is wrong and is 8 or older
- Child has been severely punished for firesetting
- Child is the victim of physical, emotional or sexual abuse
- Child experiences an anxiety release from fires
- Child has intense feelings of powerlessness or has trouble controlling impulses
- Child is a member of a gang or has a history of aggressive criminal behaviors
- Child relies extensively on thinking errors and is extremely uncooperative with assessment
- Child has been unsuccessfully treated for firesetting; the family is unable or unwilling to support intervention
ABOUT THE BEHAVIOR:
- Bed or bedroom fire
- Fires are set to specific materials related to stress
- Recent changes in the family
- Chronic history of firesetting with progression
- Bizarre or ritualistic firesetting
- Uses fire to torture/injure animals, self or others
- Obsessive/compulsive fire thoughts/behaviors
When to Seek Help
If your child has “played” with fire on more than one occasion or has deliberately started a fire, or if you are unsure about educating your child about fire safety, you should seek help through your local Fire Department. Merrimac Fire Department has trained personnel who can help the curious child to understand that playing with fire is very dangerous. Deliberate firesetting is a serious matter. Children who have deliberately started a fire may be indirectly indicating that they are having problems.
Who to Contact
The Merrimac Fire Department believes that a coordinated, consistent and appropriate response using treatment, education, deterrence, and prevention is the best method to reduce the risk of fire to youth, their families, and their communities. The RVJFIP will service children between the ages 3-17 who have exhibited fire related behavior that has come to the attention of fire, police, courts, parents, schools, the department of social services, and housing authorities.
The RVJFIP staff reviews each case to determine whether the program will be instituted in connection with a criminal prosecution or some other action. Once referred, a screening interview may be conducted to determine if the child is an appropriate candidate for the program. All information remains confidential. If the child is determined suitable for the program, he or she will be required to attend a Fire Safety school. When necessary, a mental health evaluation and treatment might be recommended to the child and their family.