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6 ways to reduce firefighter-set fires

Curbing firefighter arsons is one of the toughest nuts to crack, but here are some steps to get a handle on the problem

CHICAGO — Just hours before Matt Hinds-Aldrich spoke at Fire-Rescue International about his research on firefighter arsons, news broke that a Vermont firefighter was arrested for torching his fire station.

Hines-Aldrich is an assistant professor of fire science at Anna Maria College in Paxton, Mass., and someone who has been studying the problem of firefighter arsonists for eight years.

And while firefighter arsonists is not a problem occurring with the frequency of, say, firefighter heart attacks, neither is it a new problem. Hines-Aldrich found the first reported case of firefighter arson in 1853, and similar news reports have continued.

It is difficult to know the exact number of firefighter arsons, however, he said, there are about 100 firefighters arrested each year on arson charges.

Efforts by the FBI to profile firefighter arsonists have been largely unsuccessful, he said. That’s due to the profile being based on too small of a sample and focusing on the average suspect, missing the outliers completely. This leads to many arsonists not meeting the profile criteria and many who never set fires falling within the profile — or too many false-negative and false-positive identifications.

Hines-Aldrich said there are seven basic reasons why firefighters set fires; six were developed by the Crime Classification Manual and one is his own. The six from the manual are vandalism, excitement, revenge, crime concealment, profit and extremism.

To that, Hines-Aldrich adds occupational overzealousness. A lot of firefighter arsonists will say they think they are doing good for the community, as was the case with the two Illinois firefighters who set fire to known crack houses.

Although there is no easy cure for this problem, Hines-Aldrich offered six steps fire departments can take to lessen the chances of having a firefighter arsonist among their ranks.

  1. In many cases, firefighter arsonists reported not having any inclination to set fire until joining a fire department. Look for social factors within the fire station that may allow this behavior to persist.
  2. Because most firefighters were not previously arsonists, background checks are not a fail-safe. They are, however, a necessary part of due diligence when hiring. It is good to phone fire chiefs in departments where the candidate previously served.
  3. The FBI has a free Arson Screening and Prediction test developed by criminologist that fire departments can administer and score themselves. Although not 100 percent effective, psychological tests are another option for ferreting out arsonists.
  4. Making a zero-tolerance arson policy well known and engaging in a “scared straight” style class are two ways to use education to set the tone within the fire department.
  5. Have an open-door policy where suspicion of arson can be discussed with absolute confidentiality.
  6. Investigating every fire, tracking who is first on every scene, and documenting and replaying 911 calls are some investigative techniques.