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Extinguishing the arsonist firefighter

Firefighters intentionally setting fires needs to be as much a part of our national discussion as is preventing injuries and line of duty deaths

Our dirty little secret is out: some firefighters start fire on purpose. The exact purpose varies, but about 100 firefighters are arrested each year for arson.

Think of how many more go undetected. Does the number of fires set by firefighters double or even triple?

One hundred or more line of duty deaths in one year is considered unacceptable. That hasn’t always been the case, but it is now and that’s a good thing.

Similarly, we can’t shut the firefighter arsonist monster in a bedroom closet and pretend it doesn’t exist. It must be flushed out of its hiding spot and wrestled into submission.

But exorcising that demon will prove trickier than reducing line of duty deaths. Deaths and injuries can be confronted with behavioral modifications and engineering modifications — with firefighter arsonists, we’re left with only behavioral changes.

Firefighter arsonist behavior will be harder to detect than, say, unsafe fireground behavior. A reckless firefighter can be observed and corrected on scene and in training.

Sometimes reckless firefighters will ‘telegraph’ their inclinations around the fire station. Astute officers and senior firefighters who pick up on these clues can get out in front of the problem and address it before disaster strikes on the fireground.

And that kind of watching for signs is probably the best way to keep in front of the firefighter arsonist problem.

Typically, the firefighter arsonist is a young man, 17 to 25, and a volunteer. Some set the fires to bump up their per-call stipend if they get one. But most do it for the thrill of fighting a fire.

Granted this is not a new problem, nor one that is just now coming to light. Yet, it needs a prominent place in the fire service dialogue both on the national and local levels.

And it needs the full attention of career departments and the union. Using this as a wedge to further divide volunteer and career firefighting will only allow the problem to grow. Career firefighters who respond to an intentionally set fire via mutual aid or who wear two hats face the same risks as do the volunteers — this is a problem we all need to address.

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