Crossing the line from firefighter to arsonist

Examining six possible reasons fire service members move from firefighters to fire-setters


Within the fire service, there is an ugly truth: Some firefighters cross the line to arson.

What triggers this behavior is a question that has been the source of debate for years.

Firefighter arson was once seen to be the work of a crazed pyromaniac. Someone who commits such a crime must have complex psychological issues, right? They must have joined the fire service to act out their compulsion to set fires. Unfortunately, the answer is not so simple.

Why does a firefighter turn the corner from public servant to arsonist? (Photo/Getty Images)
Why does a firefighter turn the corner from public servant to arsonist? (Photo/Getty Images)

Why firefighters set fires

In 1951, Nolan Lewis and Helen Yarnell published the results of a first-of-its-kind large-scale study of arsonists. Fire-setters, they concluded, were weak individuals who craved recognition and public acclaim.

Firefighter arsonists, in Lewis and Yarnell’s view, were even more contemptuous. They saw these individuals as “little men with grandiose social ambitions whose natural equipment dooms them to insignificance.” This kind of thinking went by the wayside as additional studies were conducted.

More current research shows that most firefighter arsonists do not consider setting fires until after they join the fire service. This destructive impulse usually develops within a firefighter’s first few months or years of service. The reality is that the firefighter who wants to see things burn generally starts out as a highly motivated and highly trained individual.

So, why then does a firefighter turn the corner from public servant to arsonist?

One popular classification system was put forth by John E. Douglas, who coauthored the “Crime Classification Manual” in 1992. He proposed six primary motives for fire-setting in the general population: excitement, vandalism, revenge, crime-concealment, profit and extremism.

But do firefighters set fires for these same reasons?

Unfortunately, arson is not well researched in comparison to other crimes, and data on arsonists who are firefighters is even more difficult to find. Perhaps examining several cases of firefighter arson will shed some light on whether the motives that apply to the general population also apply to firefighters.

1. Arson for excitement

Arsonists motivated by excitement are seeking thrills, attention, recognition, and sometimes, albeit rarely, sexual gratification. These arsonists crave the whirlwind of excitement and activity created by a fire and the resulting emergency response. Firefighter arsonists may conveniently be the ones who discover and report the fire and who first arrive on-scene.

Take, for example, Caleb Lacy, the Long Island, New York, volunteer firefighter who, in 2009, set a neighbor’s apartment building on fire. He did so because he was tired of responding to emergency calls that were not fire-related. Wanting to be seen as a hero, Lacy set a fire in the building’s only stairwell, with the intent of returning to be the first firefighter on scene.

The building’s fire escape had been previously removed. A mother and three children were killed when they were unable to escape the blaze.

2. Arson for vandalism

Vandalism-motivated arson is characterized by malicious or mischievous fire-setting that causes property damage. Often, the fire is set for no apparent reason or “just for kicks.” This motive is not frequently found among firefighter arsonists.

One example involves Ryan Campbell and Daniel Dreisbach, two volunteer firefighters in Monroe County, Pennsylvania. In 2003, they set an abandoned trailer on fire to give their fire company something to do. The two teenagers stole road flares from the station, lit the fire, and then dropped off a third companion at home. In Campbell’s rush back to the fire scene, he wrecked his car, killing Dreisbach and severely injuring himself.

3. Arson for revenge

Offenders seeking revenge set fires in response or retaliation to a real or perceived wrongdoing. The event or circumstance does not have to be recent; it may have occurred months or even years before the arsonist initiates the fire-setting activity. One study shows this type of fire-setting more often targets institutions and society than individuals or groups.

Although his motive was not initially apparent, Peter Waraksa, a volunteer firefighter in Connecticut, set a series of fires in the 1980s. One of these fires killed a married couple. Fellow firefighters who grew suspicious of his quick response to area fires nicknamed him “Pyro Pete.” He was eventually fired but not caught until he was arrested for another crime 20 years later. During his interrogation, he admitted to police that, among other fires, he set the fire that killed the couple. Waraksa claimed that fire-setting helped calm his anger and exact revenge, although he never said why he felt vindictive.

4. Arson for crime-concealment

Arson may be committed as a secondary crime to destroy evidence from other criminal activity. Primary criminal activity often includes burglary, sexual assault and murder.

An extreme example of arson-homicide involves Fred Williams, a Memphis firefighter, who in March 2000 killed his wife and then set his home on fire to conceal the crime. When emergency personnel arrived on-scene, he fatally shot two firefighters and a sheriff’s deputy.

5. Arson for profit

Arsonists motivated by profit set fires for direct or indirect monetary gain or to eliminate debt. The goal of this type of fire-setting is to cause maximum damage in a minimal amount of time. Arson intended to defraud insurance companies would fall into this category. In the case of firefighter arsonists, they often admit setting fires for profit. Fighting the fire would give them more work hours and a larger paycheck.

One such incident involves a part-time firefighter in Arizona, Leonard Gregg, who was having financial difficulties. In an attempt to secure work with the Bureau of Indian Affairs wildland fire crew, he set a fire that merged with another to become the largest wildfire in state history. The inferno destroyed 469,000 acres and nearly 500 homes and forced the evacuation of 30,000 people.

6. Arson for extremism

Extremist-motivated arsonists are motivated by a cause – usually social, political or religious – and want their group and/or cause to be recognized as responsible. Targets reflect the focus of the extremists’ wrath. Examples include abortion clinics, slaughterhouses, animal laboratories and fur farms.

In the late 1990s and into 2000, documented incidents of extremist arson occurred in the U.S. South. Specifically, in Alabama, churches with predominantly African-American congregations were burnt to the ground. Some of these fires were later attributed to white firefighters.

Picking up the pieces

Most fire departments will never have a member of their ranks convicted of arson. However, when firefighter arson does occur, its impacts are almost always significant and far-reaching. Individual fire departments and their members may face criticism and disgrace. The public may lose trust in the fire service as a whole. Innocent victims and fellow first responders may be seriously injured or even killed. Homes and other property may be destroyed.

It is important for jurisdictions affected by firefighter arson to publicly acknowledge the issue and take steps to resolve it. New legislation related to the prosecution of suspected firefighter arsonists and task forces focused on arson prevention can be developed to help rebuild the reputation of the department. Education, training, and criminal background and reference checks can be instituted to help prevent future incidents. Psychological testing may also be used.

Increased awareness and action are crucial to restoring the confidence and trust of the community and proactively facing the future.

Additional Resource: NVFC "Report on the Firefighter Arson Problem"

NVFC Arson Report

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