Fire-setting: an under-addressed issue

By Phyllis Hanlon
October 1st, 2010

In 2008, 30,500 fires were set, resulting in 315 deaths and $866 million in loss, according to the United States Fire Administration (USFA). Even more alarming, Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics from the same year report that 47 percent of intentionally set fires were done by individuals under the age of 18; three percent of those arrested were younger than 10.

Paul Zipper, sergeant with the Massachusetts State Police, explains that the literature on juvenile fire setting behavior identifies four motives: curiosity, crisis, delinquency and pathology. Younger children who have access to matches and/or lighters tend to experiment out of innate curiosity and those with divorced or incarcerated parents or who exist in a crisis situation are at risk for setting fires, he says. Zipper adds that the delinquent teen or compulsive individual without any particular reason may tend to set fires.

Adult motivations differ significantly from that of juveniles. Zipper cites six typical motives: revenge/spite; hero status/vanity; profit; crime concealment; pathology and civil disobedience.

Robert Stadolnik, Ed.D., president of FirePsych and consultant to the Brandon School in Natick, Mass., emphasizes that fire setting behavior is a conduct disorder with common risk factors found in many other behavioral illnesses.

While there is no typical profile for a person who sets fires, tendencies increase between three and five-years-old and then again between 11 and 13 years old because of developmental factors, says Stadolnik. Preteens often have more unsupervised time outside the home or may be exposed to “disenfranchised kids,” he says and points out that fire setting behavior can occur across cognitive or socioeconomic levels.

Stadolnik reports that concerned parents who have attempted unsuccessfully to correct the behavior at home should seek help from a qualified professional or school that can conduct an assessment to determine the appropriate intervention strategy. “The danger is under-responding to kids and overpathologizing,” he says.

Individualized, multidisciplinary interventions, which might include mentoring, after school programs, community services and restitution, work best, says Stadolnik.

“Where we see increased levels of risk factors, that’s where the intervention should be.”

Brandon School has used the Rapid Firesetting Assessment (RFA), a 45-60 day residential program developed in conjunction with Stadolnik, since 2006. According to Elizabeth Maestranzi, LICSW, assistant case management coordinator at Brandon, the RFA determines the motive and level of risk and explores the nature and history of fire setting behavior. “Fire setting rarely occurs in isolation. We look at school functioning, family context and social skills,” she says. “We build in a two-week period to help put recommendations in place and provide a list of referrals and set up appointments if [individuals] don’t require residential treatment.”

Brandon offers a five-stage program, which includes orientation; accountability and safety planning; cognitive behavioral therapy; empathy training and reconnection to the community at large. “The program takes from one to two years to complete,” says Maestranzi. “Throughout the program, we do safety planning and incorporate community service.”

Steven Barreto, Ph.D., psychologist coordinator for the Children’s Inpatient Program at Bradley Hospital and clinical assistant professor with the Alpert Medical School at Brown University in Rhode Island, cites several evaluation tools available to psychologists. He recommends The Firesetting Incident Analysis – Parent and Child Version (FIA-P, FIA-C); The Firesetting Risk Interview (FIR), Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL), and The Parent-Child Conflict Tactics Scales (CTSPC) among others.

In 2002, Pine Haven Boys Center in Suncook, N.H., launched its fire-setting program, according to Joyce Pollinger, LICSW, clinical director. She indicates that students at Pine Haven, who are typically referred by the court, school or the child’s welfare system, often present with multiple diagnoses, including attention deficit hyperactive disorder, mood or anxiety disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder and conduct and/or oppositional disorder. “They are not necessarily admitted for fire setting, but for multiple issues,” she says. “Sometimes I find out months later that the child is a fire setter.” Pollinger says that parents/caregivers participate in group therapy sessions.

While boys comprise the majority of individuals who engage in fire setting behavior, the number of females is growing. According to Sharon Fogge-Swanson, MSW, clinical director at girls-only Germane Lawrence School in Arlington, Mass., most of its students have experienced trauma, oftentimes sexual and inconsistent parenting or have detachment issues or multiple caregivers. “Relationship is a big theme,” she says. “The fire setting behavior is a result of the struggle to navigate emotions.”

Beth Everts, LICSW, director of clinical services at Germane Lawrence, adds that some residents have limited social skills and are unable to offer verbal feedback. During assessment, clinicians look for behavioral patterns and attempt to determine the underlying purpose of the fire setting actions. “We look at the life history and how it impacts the behavior of girls with trauma and loss,” Everts says, emphasizing the role of parental involvement in the treatment plan.

Treatment plans comprise group therapy, milieu treatment and an educational component. But unlike intervention for males, Germane Lawrence uses charts to chronicle behavioral cycles. “It’s a way to detour behavior if thoughts and feelings come up,” Fogge-Swanson says. Recording feelings, such as loneliness and anger, identifies why and when such emotions emerge. Follow-up at six and 12 months reveals an 85 percent success rate in overcoming the fire setting behavior, she adds.

Everts emphasizes the school’s attempts to build self-esteem. “We want the girls to see themselves as productive, healthy individuals in society,” she says. “We help them think about their identity outside of fire setting.”

Stadolnik says that, as a discipline, psychologists are lacking in the area of fire setting behavior. “We are not asking the right questions diagnostically at intake,” he says and cites a study from the National Association of Fire Marshalls that indicates graduate programs in psychology and social work offer less that five percent of coursework on fire setting. “Young professionals without a base of knowledge lack the awareness of the size and scope of the problem,” he says. “Setting fires is not only a mental health illness issue but a public health issue.”

One Response to Fire-setting: an under-addressed issue

  • April 24th, 2015 at 2:29 pm Deborah Diamond posted:

    I would like information about becoming certified to do fire setting risk assessments. I have primarily focused on sexual offenders (adults and juveniles) and have received requests to evaluate juveniles with fire setting behaviors. The conference in May: Is there a training there to obtain what I need to move forward doing assessments?
    Thank you,
    Debbie Diamond

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