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Anchorage needs a youth fire-setting prevention and intervention program

By Dein Bruce, Firefighter, Anchorage Fire Department

Head matches being lit on a black background.If you have been reading the local news, or browsing social media, you may have heard about one or two playground fires. With all the issues Anchorage is facing it might seem like a small blip on the radar, but I am here to tell you it isn’t. The consequences of youth fire setting can be tragic and costly. Nationally, in a typical year, fires set by children and youth claim the lives of approximately 300 people and destroy more than $300 million worth of property. Tragically, children are the predominant victims of these fires, accounting for 85 of every 100 lives lost.

Currently, Anchorage has no intervention and prevention program.

Without intervention, there is an 80 percent chance that a child who has started one fire will start another within the year. Most children are fascinated with fire, but those children who misuse matches and lighters are putting themselves and those around them in great danger. Some children experiment with fire out of curiosity and have easy access to ignition materials. Unfortunately, children do not understand the devastating consequences of fire. Adolescents may experiment with fire and or pressure-building devices demonstrating thrill-seeking behavior. Unfortunately, there is a wealth of information on the internet that will teach them how to build devices and set complex fires. But those same videos do not show many of the tragic consequences that come after.

There are also children and youth who experiment with fire because they are experiencing a crisis in their life. The crisis could be a result of various types of childhood traumas such as moving, a loved ones’ death, divorce or bullying. Unable to express their emotions, these children may turn to the misuse of fire. These children can benefit from learning how to deal with their emotions in a more constructive and positive manner, one that does not include fire setting. Regardless of the motivation behind fire-setting behavior, most children and youth are ideal candidates for a youth fire-setting intervention program.

The news isn’t all bleak. Members of the Anchorage School District, Anchorage Police Department, State of Alaska Division of Juvenile Justice, Alaska State Fire Marshal’s Office, various members of Alaska’s mental health community, and my organization, the Anchorage Fire Department, are in the process of creating a program here in Anchorage. The program will cover a multi-jurisdictional work group that will start to educate and redirect youth that are involved in the misuse of fire.

A child can be referred to the program in several ways: a parent/guardian, teacher, the fire department, police department, or the court system. A private assessment followed by classes on the safe and proper use of fire are offered to the child and parent free of charge. An intervention specialist will work with the child to determine the motivation of their misuse of fire. If a recommendation to a mental health clinician is needed, for issues beyond curiosity, the interventionist will work with the guardian to find the appropriate resources. A follow-up evaluation after the educational program will allow the interventionist to provide continued support to the family.

Here are five things parents, guardians and caregivers need to know about fire setting right now:

  1. Fire fascination and misuse is common among children.
  2. It is usually the result of curiosity and modeled behavior.
  3. Children lack the understanding of the risks and consequences of fire.
  4. Fires set by children can be very serious, even when there is no intent to do harm.
  5. Early intervention, by trained professionals, is key to stopping this dangerous behavior.
Dien Bruce

Dein Bruce is a firefighter with the Anchorage Fire Department. 

As most home fires set by children are started with lighters or matches, it is critical to keep fire tools and liquid accelerants out of reach of their reach. Two out of five home fires set by children begin in the bedroom. The leading items first ignited by home fire-misuse were mattresses and bedding, which accounted for 24 percent of child-set home structure fires. Monitor a child’s play time to make certain that fire misuse is not part of the day’s events. Set rules that youth are not to possess or use matches or lighters without direct adult supervision. Lastly, make certain the smoke detectors in your home are in good working order and have fresh batteries every six months.

We are all in this together. Help us keep our children, youth, community and pocketbook safe from the devastating loss of fire.

 

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