In 2004, four coworkers and I were tasked with rewriting the fire department’s policy for dealing with children who set fires. The primary deterrent...

In 2004, four coworkers and I were tasked with rewriting the fire department’s policy for dealing with children who set fires. The primary deterrent is parental supervision.

Parents cannot overlook this because as long as you have a child who is “playing” with fire, everyone in your family is in danger, especially other children. I know of children who have been hurt or killed by other children setting fires.

How does a child become a firesetter? The first piece is access to matches or lighters. Do not assume that your child is not old enough or smart enough to light a match or use a lighter. If they have seen you do it, they will imitate what they have seen. The youngest children play with fire out of curiosity. In most cases, there is no bad intent as far as these children are concerned.

Even at the youngest ages, children need to be educated about the dangers of fire. As children grow older, their reasons for setting fires change. In some cases, older children set fires due to peer pressure. Another reason is the power and control that they think they have. Children think that they can set a fire and put it out when they are done. They do not realize is that the fire has the potential of doubling in size every 30 seconds. For some children, there is a psychosis that must be addressed by a mental health professional.

As children grow older, the means to address the problem is through greater and more creative education. From 2004-2006, Chesterfield Fire & EMS provided fire safety education to juvenile firesetters that included homework, requiring them to do a fire safety inspection of their home and drawing out a home escape plan. We also had a deputy sheriff who would take children – with the permission of their parents – on a tour of the jail. The latter was used especially in cases where we were had difficulty getting through to certain older children.

Recidivism is “the act of a person repeating an undesirable behavior.” If children are not educated in the dangers and possibilities of starting fires, then the possibility of it happening again is great.
Parents must get past thinking, “my child would never do this.” The problem that our department experienced was the number of children who had been through our program and were caught setting fires again. These numbers were not high, but they did occur. Our goal was to help parents stop this behavior as quickly as possible.

We also worked to connect parents with the resources needed to help their children. The key to knowing that you have this problem and assuring that it is not reoccurring is parental supervision. If your child needs help with this problem, call the Chesterfield Fire & Life Safety Division at (804) 748-1426.

In my day, there were multiple ways to get a child into our program. The best way is for a parent to see the problem and get their child into the program while the problem is small. Other ways took the voluntary aspect out of the equation. Once children get into the court system, the program would be court-ordered.

Parental supervision and taking away your children’s access to matches, lighters and candles will greatly reduce the possibility of this