Youth Firesetter Intervention Specialists: A First Defense

By Kimberly Crane

October is Fire Prevention Month

This fall, students in many schools across New Jersey will be paid a visit by the dedicated firefighters that service their district. Assemblies presented by the fire department can include a fire truck tour, a “get out-stay out” conversation, 911 instructions and fire alarm battery replacement reminders.

An appearance by Sparky the Fire Dog, the official mascot of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), is always a big hit with the kids. A lucky adult staff member may be chosen to put on a fire suit and helmet to show a younger audience that there is a friendly person inside the bulky outfit.

Fire personnel caution young children against hiding if they are caught in a fire and encourage them to go to the person or firefighter who is trying to rescue them.

National statistics

The NFPA website lists cooking equipment as the leading cause of home structure fires and home fire injuries. Smoking is identified as the leading cause of civilian home fire deaths with heating equipment as the second most common cause of home fire fatalities.

It may be a surprise to learn that intentional fire setting accounts for 8 percent of home fires and 15 percent of home fire deaths. In 2017, lighters and matches were responsible for 82 percent of civilian fire deaths.

According to FBI statistics, one out of every three people arrested for arson is under the age of 18.

Forty-three percent of children under the age of 6 start fires. More than a third of fires set by youth originate in the bedroom on mattresses or bedding. Young children are often not able to process the consequences of starting a fire. These fires are underreported nationally. Though home fires are down since 1989, the U.S. ranks third on the international list of most loss of life from fire, behind only Japan and Russia.

These statistics indicate a need for the identification, intervention and prevention of youth firesetting.

The goal of a youth firesetting intervention is to empower youth–and their families–to make better decisions regarding fire and to prevent future firesetting through accurate educational information.

– FEMA Youth Firesetter Intervention Specialist Manual

A “dynamite” duo

This year on June 20, the Mercer County Division of Youth Services offered Federal Emergency Management System (FEMA) approved Youth Firesetting Intervention Specialist (YFIS) training to fire personnel and allied professionals from the fields of criminal justice, mental health, social services, juvenile justice and education.

The training was hosted by the Trenton Fire Department Headquarters on 244 Perry Street.

YFIS instructors Helge “Hagar” Nordtveit and Joe Ehrhardt are self-described, lifelong “fire guys” with more than 30 years fire prevention education experience and impressive careers to back up that experience.

Though modest about their accomplishments, the pair’s fierce determination to mitigate youth firesetting through YFIS training is lauded on both state and national levels. Both men received training at the National Fire Academy to qualify as YFIS instructors.

Ehrhardt hails from Hamilton Township Fire District #7. He became a volunteer firefighter in 1981 and continued to volunteer after moving to Hamilton a few years later. He worked for the Middlesex County Juvenile Justice System for 32 years.

The combination of Ehrhardt’s fire department experience and work with youth firesetters in detention centers created the perfect opportunity for him to travel the state and the nation as a fire and life safety educator.

“The Mercer County Youth Firesetter Intervention and Prevention program was begun by Trenton firefighter Captain Quinton Patterson in the 1980s,” Ehrhardt explained. “He was a remarkable person.”

As with many initiatives that need funding and sponsorship, youth firesetting became less of a priority for the changing administration that followed Patterson’s death.

The cost of the program weighed against lives lost, destruction of property and businesses, raised insurance rates, and an altered quality of life for victims after a fire, seems incomparable to the financial impact of prevention training and screening. Nevertheless, interest in firesetting often peaks after a tragedy and falls again once the public’s fear is no longer fresh.

After approximately 15 years of inactivity, Ehrhardt revived the program with Mercer County’s Division of Youth Services Chief Robert Taylor and Nordtveit, his presenting partner.

Nordtveit is a retired Cranford firefighter and current Iselin #11 Bureau of Fire Prevention Fire Marshal. He lightheartedly jokes about his interesting name and proud Scandinavian heritage. He is all business however, when it comes to preventing fires.

“Children under the age of 5 are eight times more likely to die in a fire. Eleven to 14-year-old boys are statistically at the greatest risk for setting fires, but the problem does not exclusively stay within that age range or gender,” says Nordtveit. “Parents and educators must speak to young children about fire safety and provide instructions to never use lighters, matches or other fire-starting materials.”

Kimberly Crane (l), the author of this article, recently completed the Youth Firesetter Interventionist Training with Princeton Fire Marshal Peggy Brookes.

Connections and collaborations

Each county in New Jersey must have a youth firesetting intervention program and reporting procedure in place. The divisions that handle youth firesetting in New Jersey differ by county. Mercer County tasks the Division of Youth Services with these responsibilities.

Taylor’s work with promoting Youth Firesetter Intervention and Prevention in Mercer County is vital to the program’s success. Children with fire-setting behaviors are often identified through his division, which then refers the case to an approved YFIS, who will screen the child.

If the screening determines that the child is setting fires, or most likely setting fires, they will be referred to the appropriate mental health care specialist, or other authority, who can get them help.

According to the FEMA Youth Firesetter Specialist Manual, the goal of a youth firesetting intervention is to empower youth–and their families–to make better decisions regarding fire and to prevent future firesetting through accurate educational information.

Taylor believes that collaboration is key to preventing youth firesetting. Because the nature of this problem is often hidden, diversity in communication, and consistent, organized reporting is needed between all connected parties.

“One of our goals is to identify youth who exhibit inappropriate use of fire or display fire-setting behaviors,” says Taylor. “Partnering with educators and involving schools with interventionist training is one of the ways we are reaching that goal more effectively.”

Taylor works closely with Peggy Brookes, the fire inspector/investigator with the fire marshal’s office in Princeton. They each co-chair Mercer County’s youth firesetting initiative. Taylor credits Brookes with creating stability within Mercer County’s Program. Since joining the project, Brookes has developed a system for tracking youth firesetters and their progress.

Brookes is also a trained YFIS. She regularly screens minors suspected of setting fires in Mercer County.

Brookes recently spearheaded an effort to involve the Highland Park School District in her home county of Middlesex. The district now has a full-time staff member, the author of this article, who has completed YFIS training. She is now actively aware of potential firesetting behaviors in students and knows the reporting requirements of a youth firesetting situation.

Brookes feels that firesetting is often a curiosity or a cry for help. Her belief is backed by 30 years of research that finds firesetting to be the result of issues going on in a student’s home, and/or mental or emotional challenges.

Anger, resentment and revenge can also motivate firesetting. When these issues are addressed fires stop, grades go up and a student’s home life improves.

Youth firesetting intervention programs have an over 90 percent success rate with families who remain compliant with recommendations and supports needed to stop their child from setting fires.

School personnel are sometimes the first people to notice that something is not OK in a child’s life. Because principals and school officials are often aware of students with at-risk behaviors, Brookes plans to speak to administrators about attending YFIS training in the future.

“Educators and administrators are an important part of the referral process,” says Brookes. “Every referral we get is an opportunity to teach or help a child and possibly save lives.”

It is essential that an incident of fire be reported to the police and fire department by school administration. Occasions where a custodian puts out the fire and the event isn’t reported to fire officials can greatly hinder the ability to identify youth firesetters.

School fires

As recorded by the current FEMA Youth Firesetter Intervention Specialist Manual, the deadliest student-set school fire in American history occurred on December 1958 at the Our Lady of the Angels parochial school on Chicago’s west side.

The fire caused the death of 92 students and three nuns. It is suspected that an upset student lit a cardboard waste barrel on fire in the basement of the school. This tragedy was the catalyst for mandated school fire drills.

While the most prevalent cause of elementary school fires today involves cooking equipment, 25 percent are categorized as incendiary or suspicious activity—peaking in the month of July. This percentage rises to 47 percent in middle school—peaking in the spring and at the end of the school year. Most school fires start in a bathroom trash can.

FEMA has identified the hours between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. as the time most school fires occur.

It is essential that an incident of fire be reported to the police and fire department by school administration. Occasions where a custodian puts out the fire and the event isn’t reported to fire officials can greatly hinder the ability to identify youth firesetters.

Unreported incidents prevent students from getting the timely intervention and assistance that they need.

Identifying youth firesetters

Any fire in a school should be immediately reported, usually by administration, to the fire department that services the district.

If the school is able to identify who set the fire through their investigation process, the student can then be referred to a YFIS for screening to determine what supports must be put in place to ensure that firesetting does not re-occur.

Investigators report that firesetters are looking for someone to talk to. They often share what happened and their reasons for setting a fire.

Case managers, school counselors, paraprofessionals, school resource officers and school nurses play an important role in identifying youth firesetters by keeping their eyes and ears open for students who may talk about experimenting with or using fire inappropriately.

Children who share that they have access to matches, lighters, fireworks, or explosive chemicals—and students who bring those items to school to show others—are considered at high risk.

Students who pull fire alarms in a school should also be considered for referral.

All school employees are capable of assisting in the identification of firesetting behavior by reporting any concerning behavior, conversations or incidents involving fire to their school administrator who should then alert the fire department.

Who should attend youth firesetting intervention training?

The YFIS training can be attended by educators, administrators, other school personnel, fire personnel, police officers, mental health professionals, social workers, emergency response personnel, juvenile justice officers, and other professionals connected to these fields.

Kimberly Crane is an NJEA Communications Consultant and a former president and current vice president of the Highland Park Education Association.


Learn more

Conference

Mid-Atlantic Regional Fire Safety Summit

For fire service, fire prevention and educational professionals

Nov. 28

10:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.

Sheraton Hotel – Raritan Center

Edison, New Jersey

Topics will include:

• High-Risk Populations

• Youth Programming

• Remembering When – Fire and Falls Program for Seniors

• Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response

• Many more topics

Registration is free (including lunch).

Register online 

Youth Firesetter Program

For more information on the Youth Firesetter Program, email Charles Lavin, New Jersey Division of Fire and Safety Community Risk Reduction Supervisor, at Charles.Lavin@dca.nj.gov.

Learn more about firesetting

To understand more about the phenomenon of firesetting go to www.traumaburn.org/programs/educationprevention/straight-talk.

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