Arsonists Among Us

Firefighter arson—this predicament certainly isn't new to the fire service, but it has huge potential to damage a department's reputation. It creates problems within the organization as well as the communities we protect. While the issue has been longstanding, it has recently received more attention from the mainstream and fire media.

Agencies who have suffered an arson scandal have been challenged with extreme scrutiny from the news media, government overseers and their citizens. Department members not involved are left to do damage control and try to regain the trust of the community.

The issue can also wreak havoc in creating financial consequences and recruitment difficulties. Fire service leaders must take a serious look at the problem and not avoid it because it makes us uncomfortable.

Possible Causes of Such Behavior

Unfortunately, there's no one-size-fits-all answer to why some firefighters set fires. The potential motives are wide-ranging and there isn't just one mold that all firefighter arsonists fit into.

According to researchers who have studied this phenomenon, some firefighters arrested for arson have offered that they wanted to put their training to work or a desire to be seen as a hero. Other research included the need to earn extra money through wildland-fire assignments, overtime or call pay.

Indicators Chiefs Should Look For

Pattern recognition is just one method for identifying that a problem is occurring. This requires that the origin and cause of all fires be identified. Chiefs and investigators can study the data, which should include date, day, time, location, damaged property and any other relevant facts.

These occurrences may start out with what we consider to be nuisance fires, such as dumpsters and brush, but they may escalate to include larger targets, such as vacant buildings.

If patterns are identified, response records should be examined for timelines and who was on scene. Remind members that if they have suspicions about firefighter arson, they need to report it. This isn't always easy for firefighters, so encourage them to do so, even if they do it anonymously.

Best Practices for Preventing Firefighter Arson

Conducting background checks for new recruits is the first step, but this alone may not be sufficient. If an applicant is coming to you from another fire department, make a phone call to check references and specifically ask about fire setting. Research indicates that most firefighter arsonists didn't start this behavior until after they joined a fire department.

Education, starting at the recruit level, may be the most effective form of prevention. Frank discussions about run-volume and what can be expected in the way of firefighting activity must take place. Part of your training program needs to include a firefighter-arson component. Provide information about what constitutes arson, penalties and your zero-tolerance policy.

The latest and most comprehensive look at firefighter arson was conducted by the National Volunteer Fire Council: Report on the Firefighter Arson Problem: Context, Considerations, and Best Practices. The organization has developed a Firefighter Arson Prevention and Recovery Toolkit for departments who want to educate themselves on this problem. They've also created an online database to collect firefighter-arson incident data. It includes media reports since the year 2000 and users can submit known case data. A video training program on firefighter arson is currently under development.

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