Program warns children about dangers of playing with fire

June 10, 1994|By Ed Heard | Ed Heard,Sun Staff Writer

Howard County fire education specialist Sgt. Dennis Beard says that all too often, fire is child's play.

County officials have responded by developing a fire education course called the Juvenile Fire Setter Program.

"Sometimes kids just don't think," Sergeant Beard said. "We try to show them how many other people they are endangering" with their actions.

Most of the children who have taken part in the program, which can last anywhere from an hour to all day, were referred by by Howard County police, schools, parents or the Juvenile Services Department.

Sergeant Beard said fire education has been offered in the department for about 20 years but that the Juvenile Services Department recently asked for a more in-depth effort.

The program usually begins with a consultation involving Sergeant Beard, parents and the child at the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services headquarters in Columbia. Instructors in the department's fire-prevention bureau try to learn each child's history, then show the youths a videotape of interviews with burn victims.

"If parents out there know that a son or daughter is fascinated with fire, maybe sitting down with us will help," Sergeant Beard said. "If we get a grasp on it now, it saves us headaches down the road."

Sergeant Beard said 21 children went through the program in 1993 and that many others were given quick lectures about the dangers of fire.

"It's been a problem," Sergeant Beard said. "Last year, I've talked to over 30 children for numerous types of cases."

In 1992, the latest year for which statewide statistics were available, there were 568 fires caused by children playing with matches or other incendiary items, resulting in more than $4,576,383 in property loss.

Similar statistics for Howard County fires in 1993 were not available, but Sergeant Beard said many more children start fires than are reported. Only the fires that require an emergency response are recorded.

Saturday night, for example, a 6-year-old boy playing with matches started a blaze that caused $35,000 damage to his grandparents' single-family home in the Centennial States development in Ellicott City. No one was injured, and the residents were temporarily staying with neighbors.

Fire and rescue officers say it is common for children to start small fires in homes, school bathrooms, parks or in wooded areas by burning toilet paper rolls, creating homemade blow torches with aerosol cans and lighters, playing with illegal fireworks and setting mulch afire.

In the 1992-1993 school year, 18 students were suspended from Howard County schools for arson-related incidents. Eight were middle school students, five were elementary school children, and five were high school students, said Patti Caplan, information officer for the Howard County schools.

Sergeant Beard said he is scheduled to meet Monday with a middle school student who was suspended this week for a fire-related incident.

Depending on the reason they are referred, children in the fire education program are required to prepare fire safety projects, read books, write reports or even wax Fire Department vehicles. In extreme cases, fire officials recommend that parents seek professional counseling for their children.

The average age of the children in the program is 12 to 14, but officials have seen children of all ages. In December, for instance, Sergeant Beard said, a mother called asking what to do after finding her 2-year-old son under the dining room table playing with a lighter.

"I told the kid that a lighter was a tool, not a toy," Sergeant Beard said. "But the person who probably got the most out of it was the mother."

For more information, call the Bureau of Fire Prevention at 313-6045.

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