Tackling problem of young arsonists

Summit emphasizes counseling, other prevention methods

Westminster

September 21, 2001|By Ellie Baublitz | Ellie Baublitz,SUN STAFF

Concerned about the high number of fires started by juveniles, firefighters from Carroll and elsewhere are meeting in Westminster to learn better ways to educate children about the dangers of fire.

"Playing with fire is the No. 1 cause of death in residential fires of children under 5," said Tim Warner, a deputy state fire marshal based in Westminster. "One-third of the children who die set the fire themselves."

About 60 firefighters, fire marshals, police officers and others from Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Washington are attending a two-day workshop, "Juvenile Fire Prevention and Intervention," at the Best Western Conference Center. The workshop offers a chance for agencies and organizations to gather ideas for prevention efforts.

Fires set by juveniles younger than age 18 account for more than half the arson arrests in the United States every year, according to statistics presented at the workshop, which began yesterday. During the 1990s, juvenile arson arrests increased 9 percent nationwide, officials said.

Yesterday, workshop participants learned frightening statistics about children who set fires, whether intentionally or accidentally.

Jessica Gaynor, a clinical psychologist and expert in juvenile fire prevention and intervention from San Francisco, presented the information.

Of fire deaths in the home between 1990 and 1999 caused by children playing with matches:

More than 25 percent of the victims were a year old or younger.

10 percent were 2 years old.

17 percent were 3 years old.

13 percent were 4 years old.

5 percent were 5 years old.

Part of the problem, she said, is easy access to matches and lighters, and the curiosity of very young children.

Older children also present a problem. They might set fires deliberately, out of anger, for revenge, for excitement, profit or to conceal a crime. Some have diagnosed mental illnesses that contribute to the problem.

"An educational format is important to teach young children and parents about the dangers of fire," Gaynor said.

"Once you teach the child the danger of fire, the probability of that child starting another fire is almost zero," he said.

Warner noted a recent Carroll County case involving an 11-year-old boy playing with fire in his parents' garage.

Thinking the fire was out, the boy left the garage.

The fire destroyed the garage and seriously damaged the house, making it uninhabitable. No one died in that fire.

"The child wasn't arrested but [was] referred to juvenile services," Warner said. "In interviews with the family, we found out he had a history of playing with fire."

One purpose of the workshop is to try to set up a program for such cases - those in which mental health and other agencies would be involved - in Carroll County, Warner said.

The workshop includes small-group discussions and role playing to learn interview techniques when dealing with children who set fires and their families. Participants will study case histories.

William Barnard, Maryland state fire marshal, said he is "interested in seeing more done in this area because it is such a serious problem."

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