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Alarms Ring Over Juvenile Fire Setting

Near a house in suburban Seattle, two small boys ages 5 and 6, playing with matches, start a fire. Minutes later, the little blaze is discovered by an adult and extinguished. Asked why they lit the fire, one boy says he "wanted to see if a fire engine showed up."

Fire prevention experts say the two boys are "curiosity fire-setters," too young to understand the destructive power of playing with matches, and not likely to repeat the behavior if counseling is quick and careful.

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The fire engine never arrived for the two boys. But many thousands of other juveniles across the United States are causing fire alarms to ring as never before. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), a staggering 52 percent of US arson arrests in l995 were youths under age 18.

"Juvenile arson arrests are the highest they have been in over a decade," says Paul Schwartzman, a veteran fire consultant from Fairpoint, N.Y., who has helped communities around the country establish prevention programs.

Moreover, a third of all people arrested for arson in l995 were under 15 years old, and playing with fire is also the leading cause of death among preschoolers.

"The level of preteen involvement in arson is unheard of for any other crime tracked by the FBI," says John Hall Jr., vice president of Fire Analysis and Research at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in Quincy, Mass. Approximately $2 billion in property damage is caused by arson each year.

"Juvenile arson arrests are the highest they have been in over a decade," says Paul Schwartzman, a veteran fire consultant from Fairpoint, N.Y., who has helped communities around the country establish prevention programs.

Some experts say that juvenile arson statistics could even be higher because 80 to 85 percent of suspicious fires are never solved.

From 1986 to 1995, the net changes in arson arrests were a 40 percent increase for juveniles and a 15 percent decrease for adults, according to the NFPA. Other experts say that the steady growth of community prevention and intervention programs, and fire department strategies in dealing with juvenile arsonists, may be partially responsible for the statistical increase. Also, in 1994 the introduction of a child-resistant lighter (two hands to produce a flame) has led to a slight decline in fires known to be set by lighters.

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"There is simply more awareness of the consequences of unsupervised children playing with matches and lighters," says Meri-K-Appy, vice president of Public Education at NFPA.

But not nearly enough awareness. Fires started by five-to-nine-year-olds spring from a mix of intense curiosity, easy access to matches and lighters, and momentary lapses in adult supervision. "Mom or Dad goes to the mailbox or to do the laundry, and a fire is lit by a child," says Mr. Schwartzman. "Many thousands of fires are set this way every year."

Also, add plenty of unsupervised latch-key children, and too many preteens from troubled families to the list of kids at risk. Often these juveniles become recurrent fire setters. Peer pressure can also lead to incidents. Influenced by older teens, 13-year-old Steven, a good student from a stable family in suburban Seattle, was involved in fire vandalism at a construction site.

"I couldn't believe it when the police brought him to the door at 1:30 in the morning," said his mother, Joan Smith (not her real name). "What I realized is how easily this can happen to kids who wouldn't ever do this on their own."

Studies indicate that children from chaotic families, where abuse and neglect are the daily fare, can become pathological fire-setters in need of extensive counseling. They light fires for attention, power, or to retaliate. A growing number of fires are also linked to illegal drug activity by juveniles and adults.

"Many parents are not poster people for safety," says Don Porth, director of public education at the Portland, Ore., Fire Department. "You've got Mom smoking 15 cigarettes a day, saying don't touch that lighter, and then holding the flame an inch from her face to light up," he says. "And Dad is frying burgers on the barbecue with flames that look like a liftoff at Cape Canaveral. The kids get a mixed message."

To counter the mixed message, fire departments and many communities have joined forces in intervention and prevention programs. Some cities, like Seattle, do not have mandatory fire education as part of the school curriculum and rely instead on fire department programs

"Learn Not To Burn," a NFPA fire prevention curriculum for kindergarten through third grade, was used by the Phoenix, Ariz., schools for many years. It focuses on exercises that include teaching respect for fire, labeling matches as tools not toys, and learning how to "stop, drop, and roll," if a child's clothing catches fire.

Recently Phoenix expanded the program to be a life-safety program with an injury prevention approach called Urban Survival. And NFPA, beginning in January, will introduce an expanded version of "Learn Not to Burn" called "Risk Watch."

"We had over a million dollars in damages last year and two fire deaths because of youngsters setting fires," says Carol Gross, fire-setter program administrator for the Phoenix Fire Department.

If a juvenile is caught in a intentional fire in Phoenix now, he is arrested for arson but not necessarily incarcerated. He and his family are provided mandatory counseling at no cost to the family.

Some 460 juveniles have been through the program with only a 2 percent recidivism rate. "We have a citizen advisory committee," says Ms. Gross, "with the courts represented, child protective services, the school districts, and the judges involved. We see fire setting as a community issue."

Since the "Learn Not to Burn" curriculum was launched by NFPA in 1975, more than 420 "life-saving incidents" have been recorded in which children took action related to instructions learned in the program.

For instance, earlier this year in Lockhart, Texas, seven-year-old Hector Gomez saved six lives after an electrical fire started in his bedroom. As taught in school, Hector crawled under the smoke, led his family to safety, and then ran to a neighbor's to call the fire department.

While knowing what to do in a fire emergency is half the battle, a more critical problem is keeping juveniles from starting fires. In Portland, schools and the fire department are doing just that. The "Learn Not to Burn" curriculum was introduced in l992 to Head Start preschoolers as an early education program about fire. The impact, say school and fire department officials, has led fire-setter referrals to drop from 6.2 percent in l992 to 1.8 for 1996-97. At the elementary level there was a 37 percent reduction of youth fires in high risk areas.

In Seattle's King County, in addition to as much as eight hours of mental health counseling for the serious fire-setting children and their families, the child signs a contract for a probationary period.

"We try to turn the issue over to the caregiver of the child," says Lisa Lapsanky, a public educator for the King County Fire Department, "because the problem is a family problem."

"We can teach kids until we are blue in the face that matches are tools," Ms. Lapsanky adds, "but until parents do their part too, we won't have significant progress."

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