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A deeper look at firefighters who set fires

About 100 firefighters a year are arrested for arson; many believe they are actually helping the community

By Todd C. Frankel
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS — They are curious cases, these firefighter arsonists, people who put out fires accused of starting them.

A Lincoln County volunteer firefighter was arrested Monday for allegedly torching a garage and is suspected in 14 other fires. In recent weeks, firefighters from Vermont, Iowa, New York and Oklahoma have been in court for allegedly setting fires. An estimated 100 firefighters are arrested for arson each year.

“It happens more than you think,” said Daniel Hebert, who investigated many firefighter arsonist cases during his time as a federal agent in Louisiana. “Really, it goes on way more than anyone knows. We don’t know about most of them.”

But the ones who are caught, they are sources of fascination. They are contradictions. Researchers have been working for years to learn what drives firefighters to become arsonists, or whether these are actually cases of arsonists drawn to be firefighters. The FBI has gotten involved. So have universities. Profiles have been drawn up and tossed aside. Learning what drives a firefighter to set fires has become a dedicated field of study.

In the case of the Lincoln County firefighter, experts saw something familiar.

Dustin Matthew Grigsby was a volunteer fireman in Old Monroe. The town had been stung by several suspicious fires this year. The last one came Saturday. A security camera recorded a white car parked outside a garage moments before the structure burst into flames.

The county fire marshal had noticed the fires were occurring in a circle. He advised authorities to look for the car inside the circle. Police found a white Chevrolet Lumina in Grigsby’s driveway. Police said he told them he “needed a release” and wanted to be able to respond to the fire to put it out.

Grigsby is 19. Firefighter arsonists are generally 17 to 25, according to research by Matthew Hinds-Aldrich, an assistant professor of fire science at Anna Maria College in Paxton, Mass. He was the lead author on the 2011 National Volunteer Fire Council “Report on the Firefighter Arson Problem.”

Grigsby’s dad is a fire district captain. That’s not unusual, Hinds-Aldrich said. “You can imagine, how does Junior make a reputation for himself? How is he going to have the stories to tell that his dad does?”

And Grigsby’s alleged motivation is common, too, Hinds-Aldrich said.

He wanted to fight a fire. So he allegedly started one.

In some rural districts many firefighters are volunteers, so the basic benefit of the job is not a paycheck. They train for hundreds of hours, then they go back to their small communities and do nothing.

“There’s a boredom element to it,” Hinds-Aldrich said.

Some are true firebugs, people who have an unhealthy love of fire. That’s rare. James Pharr, who teaches a Fires & Explosions class at Eastern Kentucky University, recalled one case where the mother of a firefighter turned out to be the arsonist. Her son was a contract firefighter -- he got paid only when he was called out.

More commonly, the offenders see their actions as helping the community. They are providing chances to train, a chance for the firefighters to get out and have some fun. They target grasslands or derelict, empty buildings. In a majority of the cases studied by Hinds-Aldrich, at least two firefighters at the same department were involved in the fire-setting. They worked together. In Louisiana, authorities discovered that several firefighters from two rural districts were setting dozens of fires each year, mostly grassland but eventually buildings. They called them “parties.”

“They go into it for all the right reasons, but then they do something wrong,” said Hebert, who helped bust the Louisiana firefighter arsonists during his career at the U.S. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“It’s not really malicious,” Hinds-Aldrich said.

The Lincoln County fire marshal said there were no signs of trouble with Grigsby before his arrest.

“He was probably one of the last people you would’ve looked at for it,” Barry Nuss said.

Firefighters who set fires are not a new phenomenon. In the 1830s, a farm laborer and part-time firefighter was executed for setting a series of fires, according to Hinds-Aldrich’s study. Newspaper headlines from the turn of the 20th century are filled with references to the acts, when arsonists were called “incendiaries.” Research into the causes took off in the 1990s. In 1994, the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime interviewed 66 jailed firefighter arsonists to develop a profile. In 2003, the U.S. Fire Administration issued a special report on the topic.

After several years of pushing to identify potential arsonists before they became firefighters -- and failing at that, the research these days has turned toward educating fire departments and breaking what some call a culture of silence inside firehouses. Some fire departments quietly push out firefighters they suspect of arson or deal with the problem privately.

“There’s a mentality among firefighters to protect your own,” Hebert said.

“This has long been a taboo topic in the fire service,” Hinds-Aldrich added.

He pointed to the Old Monroe fire department as an example of the changes that are needed. The department addressed the problem publicly. Yes, it might hurt in recruiting members and raising funds. But they did the right thing, he said. There are very few arsonists among the estimated 1.3 million firefighters in the United States. But they do great damage, Hinds-Aldrich said.

He’s going to Chicago next week to talk to a convention of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. He will be talking about firefighter arsonists, about how the problem is less firefighters obsessed with fire than firefighters who think they are doing the right thing.

“In some ways,” he said, “that’s the more difficult conclusion.”


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