Statistics about arson in the United States are sobering enough: the highest rate in the world; a rate that has more than tripled in the past decade. But there is one particular human dimension of the problem that demands - and is getting - priority corrective attention, thanks to a San Francisco Fire Department volunteer.
Pamela McLaughlin sought a solution to the problem of youngsters setting fires - inside their homes and in neighborhood mail boxes, sometimes even causing destruction of entire houses. She noticed that in nearly every case in San Francisco, these troubled youngsters lacked a strong father figure in their lives or had little parental supervision.
One day while watching her two normal, healthy sons in an animated conversation with firemen at fire department headquarters, the idea suddenly struck her: Why not bring young fire starters together with firemen on a one-to-one basis? Let the firemen serve as father substitutes for youngsters who are lonely and trying to gain attention by setting fires.
With the encouragement of then-San Francisco Fire Chief Andy Casper, Ms. McLaughlin went after and got a $17,000 start-up grant from the US Fire Administration. Next, she made the rounds of firehouses looking for firemen who would volunteer to help a young boy. Within a month she had 19 volunteers, and social agencies and schools referred the boys to the various fire departments. (Girls haven't been included in the San Francisco program, because very few seem inclined to set fires. Experts aren't sure why.)
These first 20 or so boys were the beginning of the National Firehawk Foundation, launched three years ago. (''Firehawk'' got its name from one of Ms. McLaughlin's sons, who said that ''it sounded masculine and like something you would want to join.'') The result was a 100 percent success rate - none of the boys involved in the program returned to setting fires. And an additional 160 boys were touched by the program on a short-term or one-time basis.
''Firehawk works because these kids need attention,'' says San Francisco fireman Craig Brown, who is now on the Firehawk Advisory Board and has helped several boys. ''The kid knows I'm serious. I call him, take him to ball games, and we talk about fire prevention at the firehouse, where he sees what it takes to prevent fires.
''The first month we snap him to attention, and slowly a bond is created, and he starts calling me because he knows I want him to survive and do well in life.''
The initial meeting between a boy and the fireman can be tearful for the boy. A Firehawk volunteer is always present at the initial meeting to assure the boy that the point of the meeting is not to punish him for setting fires.
''Before the meeting,'' says Jessica Gaynor, a family psychologist and Firehawk's president and executive director, ''we've done our best to match a boy and a fireman who we think will be compatible, and so far this has always been the case.'' The firemen undergo three training sessions before they are paired with boys.
In San Francisco, about one-fourth of the boys in the program are referred to Firehawk by the city's probation department; the rest are referred by social agencies and schools, who inform the children's parents about the program.
Craig Brown says that one boy he was matched with, a 7-year-old who had been setting fires since he was 4, was very upset when Mr. Brown, after fighting a three-alarm fire, had to cancel a planned outing.
''I was groggy from the effects of carbon monoxide,'' Brown says. ''The boy had no idea what a fire could do to somebody, and it was me telling him. His mother said he worried for three days.''
Fifty fire-service leaders from around the US now serve on the Firehawk Advisory Board. ''We are in the process of starting the program in 22 states,'' says Ms. McLaughlin, who now serves as chairwoman of the foundation's board, ''and Washington, D.C., is now training firefighters.''
''We are successful, I think, because we are an early-intervention program that keeps kids out of the juvenile justice system,'' says Dr. Gaynor.
''We are not working with child arsonists. We are working with children who are becoming involved in fire-setting behavior.
''This is an important distinction because the juvenile-justice system is ready to call them arsonists.''
A significant number of children are involved each year in fire setting around the country, and many metropolitan fire departments will treat young fire starters as criminals.
''In some cities the fire department will fingerprint a child and take his photograph because they assume he'll set fires for the rest of his life,'' says Ms. McLaughlin.
Over the last year, national interest in the Firehawk program has mushroomed. Ms. McLaughlin, who continues to direct the foundation without a salary, provides interested fire departments or responsible community groups with a comprehensive 300-page manual on starting and maintaining a Firehawk program. No fees are involved except a $20 charge for the manual to cover printing costs.