A burning issue

There are more than 2,000 arson attacks in the UK each week. This startling figure is revealed by the latest fire statistics from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. They also show that, on average, two people die as a result of these attacks, 53 people are injured, and around 1,500 cars, 260 homes and 20 schools are damaged or destroyed.

Arsonists are commonly aged between 10 and 18. In fact, according to the Arson Prevention Bureau, 40% of prosecutions for arson are against children and young people aged 10 and 17, and this figure rises to 90% for arson attacks on schools. The problem can even involve children as young as two – although at this age they are called fire setters. Opinions differ over when a child stops being a fire setter and becomes an arsonist – some say it’s when a fire is started with malicious intent, others when a child reaches 14 and others when a child is caught and convicted. 

Most young arsonists think arson is a victimless crime.  “To overcome this you have to make them understand the consequences of fire, the consequences to themselves and to others,” says Mark Taylor, fire safety education manager at Surrey Fire and Rescue Service.

What all people working with young arsonists agree on is that the earlier their actions are identified and addressed, the less likely it is that they will keep setting fires. Identifying why a child is setting fires is important because reasons can vary greatly from one child to another. “The child could be a curiosity fire setter who wants to see what happens,” says Taylor. “Or sometimes setting a fire makes a child feel good or gets them attention. Or they could be a revengeful fire setter who is angry with school and wants to get revenge.”

Most children are interested in fire when young and most are taught about the dangers. Those that aren’t may develop an unhealthy fascination with fire and start lighting fires in bins at home. This behaviour can quickly escalate until the child is striving to set ever bigger and better fires.

“You often find that the kids setting fires to cars are those who had a tendency towards fire setting when much younger,” says Nick Bason, policy advisor at the Arson Prevention Bureau.

By the time they are setting fires to cars or school bins, those fire setters are often engaged in other antisocial behaviour, such as vandalism and graffiti. In fact, Taylor says that problematic behaviour, such as truancy and vandalism, often precedes fire setting and can be a warning sign for parents, teachers and youth workers.

There are juvenile fire setter schemes across the UK and the fire service has done extensive work in trying to combat the problem. Schools, youth offending teams, the police and health authorities usually have links to these schemes. Bason thinks it is imperative that the problem of arson is addressed specifically, not generally, as part of a wider rehabilitative programme for young offenders. “If arsonists come out of a traditional youth offending scheme they will still have a fascination with fire and it is likely they will continue,” he says. 

Preventive fire schemes focus on teaching children about the danger fire poses to themselves and others,  for example, how quickly fires spread, the risks of smoke inhalation, of buildings collapsing, and how often members of the public and fire fighters are injured. Most fire brigades have a dedicated arson taskforce and will bring children into the fire station to teach them.

“When questioned, a lot of offenders will say they didn’t mean to burn the school down and that they didn’t know the fire would spread so quickly,” says Bason. “That’s why you have to teach children about the risks of fire.” He says local schemes are very good at educating child arsonists and preventing them from reoffending. But he would like to see action at a national level and says the government needs to develop a national child arson strategy.

Things to watch out for:

  • A fascination with fire from a young age. A young child that constantly plays with matches or lighters and sets off small fires could be developing an unhealthy fascination.

  • A home environment that isn’t properly monitored. This can  allow children and young people to have easy access to matches and lighters  and fire setting behaviour can escalate.

  • Other forms of antisocial behaviour, such as vandalism and graffiti. These can be precursors to fire setting, as can truancy.

  • Bullying. Sometimes children that are being bullied at school set fires as a way to regain control and get back at the school or classmates.

  • Peer pressure. Some fire setters start fires as a result of pressure from their peers or as a dare.

    The power of three
    The Cheshire Fire Service has three programmes for arsonists designed to teach them about the consequences of their actions and turn their behaviour around.

    Ray Galligan, youth support officer, explains how Cheshire’s approach works:

    “Our first scheme is the Arson Programme, which is for young people on court orders or final warnings as an alternative to a custodial sentence. It is a direct partnership with youth offending teams and we have had 30 young offenders aged between 10 and 18 over the past three years,” he says.

    Its fire safety education programme has 11 units, covering areas such as fire safety and the statistics of fires and injuries. “The offender completes the units relevant to them, although all do the unit on the consequences of fire setting,” Galligan explains. “They discuss points related to their offences so that there is a direct link.”

    There is also a practical session where the young people go through a smoke house at a fire station. Galligan says: “The artificial smoke gives an impression of what it’s like for people trapped in buildings. It makes them appreciate the consequences of their actions. None of these arsonists have reoffended.”

    The second scheme is called the Firesafe Scheme. “This is a counselling service for families where children have an unhealthy fascination with fire,” Galligan explains. Referrals come from parents, social services staff or other people working with children. Over 600 children have attended this scheme and few have reoffended.

    The third, the Intermediate Scheme, is the newest programme and deals with young people who are referred through the Youth Inclusion and Support Panel and educational services because they have been excluded from school for fire setting incidents. This programme uses some of the court-mandated programme units. Most of the children have successfully completed the programme and been reassigned to another school.

    “Our aim with all three programmes is to confront the negative attitudes that cause arson, to inform young people and parents about risks of fire, and to raise awareness for responsibility about their actions and support them to change their behaviour,” Galligan says.

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