Last month my column pertained to firefighter arsonists. This column generated numerous phone calls and e-mails, mostly from Fire Chiefs who recently had the unpleasant experience of having one of their own arrested for arson. Here are some additional thoughts on this very unpleasant topic.
One thing is clear – unless the problem is addressed, there is little hope for anything but a continuation.
I would like to emphasize that percentage-wise the number of firefighter arsonists is miniscule compared to all those who serve honorably. But once a firefighter intentionally starts a fire, he or she stops being a firefighter and becomes just another criminal. Every Chief should look at his department membership and do everything possible to prevent firefighters from turning into criminals and to be vigilant in looking for signs of firefighter arson in their department. Every Chief that I corresponded with described their arsonists/former firefighter as being one of their young, newer members, who appeared to be a super hard worker with extremely high activity levels and great potential.
The Suffolk County Fire Marshall’s Office has been addressing this problem since a series of firefighter arson arrests in the early 1990s. They provided me with a list of indicators to consider when looking at fire department personnel as possible arsonists.
Here are some of the things to look for:
• Almost all of these firefighter arsonists are highly active in their fire departments, attending the majority of in-house training but little outside the fire district.
• They are excited to the point of euphoria after the fire.
• It seems like they are always around the fire station.
• They are usually the first or one of the first at the scene of incidents or on the first responding apparatus.
• Socially, they have little outside of the fire department.
• They work minimal hours, thereby having a great deal of free time.
• Suspicious fires may decrease if an employer has a busy season or if the member is a student and is near finals or midterms.
• A recent breakup of a spouse or girlfriend may result in an increase in fire setting after the breakup.
• Firefighter arsonists are frequently not married, have a troubled marriage, or are separated or divorced. They may be unemployed or at a low paying, low scale job.
• They are usually male, usually Caucasian, usually between 16 to 27 years of age.
Another valuable resource on this topic is a book published by Suffolk County Fire Marshall Brett M. Martinez, titled Multiple Fire Setters: the Process and Identification, published by Penwell Corporation/Fire Engineering. The book teaches how to identify multiple fire setters and to understand the motivation behind these crimes.
In an article from the International Association of Fire Chiefs Publication, “On Scene,” FBI Investigator Timothy G. Huff states that there are predictable reasons for firefighters to set fires: “The predominant motive for 89 percent of firefighter arsonists and particularly for youthful firefighter arsonists was excitement.” Some of the other reasons were: “a desire to put their training and expectations into action by setting the fires themselves and the hope that they would be perceived as heroes for their fire fighting efforts.” Investigator Huff also indicates that offenders are often fairly new members of the department, with an average time with the department of 2.4 years.
Mr. Huff and others reveal there is a high likelihood of alcohol or drug abuse and/or a criminal record of petty offenses. Moreover, many had a poor academic record in school and behavioral problems.
It makes sense to include some training for new recruits and existing members on the consequences for setting fires. Suffolk County produced a video as part of its program to do just that. The video is very short, less than 10 minutes, and delivers a powerful message to the viewer, showing what their life would be like if they are arrested for arson. The video is quite perfect for its intended use. However, it should probably be updated in a DVD format and distributed to every fire department in New York State and, for that matter, the country. I think this would be a perfect project for one or a coalition of large insurance companies, who would ultimately benefit by a reduction in fire loss claims. If any of the readers have ideas or contacts with the insurance industry, feel free to contact me by phone (845-364-8933) or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.