For years within the fire service, firefighters have had the obligation of speaking with youths that have started fires. There was a time when children who set fires or played with fire were often taken to the fire station for a stern lecture from a firefighter. More recently, trained members of the fire service have interviewed firesetters and their families using more sophisticated intervention strategies.
“Firesetting” is an intentional act that creates a disturbance or harms people, animals, or objects.
“Fire play” is other involvement with fire or fire materials, usually lighting matches or lighters without the approval or supervision of a parent. Fire play is often an isolated event that is motivated by curiosity.
The majority of children who are seen by the fire department have no serious problems and are motivated by a mischievous curiosity and lack of understanding of the dangers of fire play. The fire safety educator’s objective is education. It is not to alarm, punish or judge the child or family.
The St. Charles Fire Department Juvenile Fire Setters Program has been in operation for quite some time. Our formal records date back to around 1990. The program averages involvement of approximately 12 children a year, both court ordered and volunteer, and involves two visits to the fire station. The first visit lasts approximately 45 to 60 minutes and requires the appearance of the child and at least one parent. The fire safety educator conducts an assessment, gives a fire safety talk, and presents a videotape. The child then receives a homework assignment that matches the child’s age and could relate to the incident in question. An example would be a fire escape plan for the home. The child and one parent would then return to the firehouse in approximately two weeks to review the homework and the fire safety talk. At this time, any questions that have surfaced after the first meeting would be addressed.
Anytime a parent or concerned person brings a problem to the fire department it will, of course, be addressed. The Juvenile Fire Setter Program should not, however, be used as an advanced safety town program. It should be used when a child has not only shown an interest in fire, but has demonstrated some type of fire play.
Children’s interest in fire is almost universal. Fire setting and fire play are both dangerous and must be stopped. The trained fire educator must first identify which activity the child is involved in. Fire setting often involves a referral to another professional that can address underlying problems. Children involved in fire play usually benefit from educational programs conducted by fire safety educators.
There are several fire department employees that have been trained in the techniques of the Juvenile Fire Setters Program. Please contact the Public Education Officer at the Fire Department (630) 377-4457 if you know anyone that could benefit from this program.