Juvenile Fire Setter Program

Ulster County Juvenile Firesetter Program provides information and new developments in the field of juvenile firesetter intervention and education through the exchange of ideas and information from expert speakers and presenters.

Contact: Wayne T. Freer, Arson Coordinator
Ulster County Law Enforcement Center
380 Boulevard, Kingston, NY 12401
Phone: 845-340-8629
Fax: 845-340-1718
E-mail: wfre[at]co.ulster.ny[dot]us

Youthful Firesetter Behavior:

The misuse of fire has many variables including age, motivation for firesetting behavior, type of fires set, ignition materials used to set the fire, and the child's understanding and limitations of fire. Firesetting behavior is often a symptom of the problem and may be manifested through stress and crisis in their lives.

Juvenile firesetting or the misuse of fire by children isn't necessarily arson. A myriad of terms have been considered to describe the misuse of fire by kids. They include juvenile firesetting, juvenile arson, child arson, youth firesetting, fire lighting, fireplay, and match play.

The words we choose define our understanding of firesetting and our perceptions of juveniles displaying this behavior. Through the years, we have tried different words to better understand the intentional use of fire with children and adolescents. The word juvenile even became a problem for some. Juvenile was often shortened to "juve." A youth involved in the juvenile court system was a delinquent and that didn't fit the mode of our youth motivated by curiosity about fire. Youth who intentionally set fires for reasons that are not appropriate, i.e., to destroy, vandalize, get revenge or show power or control over others are "misusing" fire to satisfy their own needs. Likewise, the word "fireplay" has outlived its usefulness. "Fireplay" normalized the behavior and minimizes the potential for serious consequences, making it more likely the youth with "firesetting behavior" won't get the appropriate and necessary intervention. It follows that the words we choose to describe the behavior of children and adolescents with fire drives the intervention they receive. That is why we must choose our words—carefully.

Youth Firesetting Facts:
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA):

  • Fires started by children playing accounted for an average of 56,300 fires with associated losses of 110 civilian deaths, 880 civilian injuries, and $286 million in direct property damage per year between 2005 and 2009.
  • Younger children are more likely to set fires in homes, while older children and teenagers are more likely to set fires outside.
  • Males are more likely to engage in fireplay than females, as 83 percent of home structure fires and 93 percent of outside or unclassified fires were set by boys when age was coded as a factor.
  • Lighters were the heat source in half (50 percent) of child-playing fires in homes.
  • A child's bedroom continues to account for 40 percent of child-playing home fires.
    The U.S. Fire Administration's National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) data indicate, where age was cited as a factor in a fire's ignition by lighters or matches, 37 percent of these fires were started by juveniles aged 10 to 17.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI's) Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program:
  • Juveniles (persons under age 18) accounted for roughly 46 percent of arson arrests in 2005 to 2010.
  • In 2010, 40 percent of arson arrests were juveniles with 47.6 percent of those children under 16 years of age. Arrests of juveniles for the crime of arson were higher, proportionally, than for any other crime.
  • 34.3 percent of arson offenses cleared involved juveniles, which was the highest percentage of all offense clearances involving only juveniles.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Fire and Explosives (ATF) reports that from 2000 to 2009:
  • There were 1,637 juvenile-involved fire incidents reported in Bomb Arson Tracking System (BATS).
  • More than half of these fires (56 percent or 909 incidents) were classified as arson.
  • Twenty-nine percent (or 476 incidents) were classified as accidental and 15 percent (or 251 incidents) were classified as undetermined.
  • The total dollar damage reported for these fires estimated at more than $75 million.

What Families Can Do To Be Safe:

Youth firesetting is often referred to as the preventable arson.
Each year in this country, fires set by children are responsible for more than 100 fire deaths, nearly 1,000 painful burn injuries, and hundreds of millions of dollars in property loss, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. Children are often the victims in these fires. While curiosity about fire is natural, fires set by children are dangerous and deadly.

Why Do Kids Set Fires?

For most young kids, the motives to set fires are experimentation and curiosity.
The best way to understand why children set fires is to look at their motivations for firesetting. For most young kids, the motive is experimentation and curiosity. Motives can involve curiosity, a cry for help, thrill-seeking, willful intent to cause destruction, or by children who suffer from mental or emotional problems.

Remember, if you suspect your child is setting fires, you are not the only parent ever to face this problem. Contact your local fire department immediately. Explain the situation to them. Many fire departments offer youth firesetting prevention and intervention programs.

Parents, caregivers, and public educators, whether they are from the fire department or the school system, can build an informed foundation by teaching fire safety at an early age. Teach children of all ages that fires, even small ones, can spread quickly.

Teaching Children Fire Safety: The most critical message for children to learn is that matches and lighters are tools, not toys! Parents should never use lighters, matches, and fire for fun; children will mimic you, and when they do it unsupervised, tragic events can result. Praise your child for practicing responsible behavior and showing respect for fire. Set a good example: use matches, lighters, and fire carefully, as children will imitate positive behavior too.

  • Always supervise young children.
  • Never leave matches or lighters within reach of children. Keep matches and lighters out of reach in high, locked cabinets.
  • Use child-resistant lighters, but remember that they are not child proof.
  • Instruct young children to inform an adult if they find matches or lighters.

Home Fire Safety Tips:
  • Regularly inspect your home for fire hazards.
  • Install and maintain working smoke alarms throughout your home.
  • Plan and practice home fire-escape drills that include two ways out from every room.
  • Install residential fire sprinklers in your home.

Juvenile Firesetter Statistics
  • The number of fires set by children is growing. It is a problem that needs the attention of parents, teachers, counselors and community leaders, in cooperation with fire and law enforcement officials.
  • Roughly 3 out of every 4 children experiment with fire. The crime of arson has the highest rate of juvenile involvement than any other crime.
  • Juveniles account for more than one-half of the arson arrests, with one-third of those children being under the age of 15.
  • In a typical year, 300 people are killed and $190 million in property is destroyed in the U.S. due to fires set by children. Many times the children themselves are the victims of these fires, accounting for 85 of every 100 lives lost.

Curiosity Firesetters: This type of behavior is usually seen in children ages 2 to 7 years old. The child is not able to understand the potential destructive nature of fire, and therefore does not fear it. They want to find out how it feels, how it burns and what it does.

Although curiosity is a normal part of children's growth and development, parents and other adults who discover that a child is playing with fire should take it very seriously. This type of behavior has to be addressed immediately in order to ensure the safety of the child and family.

Problem Firesetters: This is usually seen in children 5 to 17 years of age. In these instances the child sets a fire in response to a crisis in his or her life such as a divorce, a death, moving to a new area, bullying, etc. Also known as "cry for help" firesetters.

Firesetting behavior can also be due to an emotional or mental disorder. Chronic behaviors such as poor relationships with other children, cruelty to animals and extreme mood changes are a few of the traits revealed that could trigger firesetting. This type of firesetting behavior has to be taken seriously and professional help should be sought.

Teach your child about Fire:

  • Fire is a tool used by adults, not a toy.
  • Fire is dangerous—it can kill.
  • All fires can spread quickly
  • Even adults must follow safety rules for fire.

Control your child's access to fire:

  • Keep matches and lighters out of the reach of children; even a 2-year old can operate a lighter.
  • Never leave lit stoves, candles or fires unattended.
  • Teach children to show you any matches or lighters that they find.

Set a good example:

  • Install and maintain smoke alarms.
  • Plan and practice fire escape drills in your home.
  • Inspect your home for fire hazards.
  • Point out to your children the fire safety rules you and others follow.