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Fire official says most arson caused by juveniles

November 25, 1999|By KIMBERLY YAKOWSKI

About 70 percent of all deliberately set fires in Hagerstown this year were started by children and fire officials are calling on parents and the public to help curb the trend.

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Every student in Washington County receives fire safety instruction at the Children's Village education complex but the increasing statistics show that it is not enough, said Mike Weller, Hagerstown Fire Department life safety educator.

From Jan. 1 to Oct. 31, there were 51 arsons in Hagerstown. Of those 36, or 70 percent, were set by children, Weller said.

There were 39 arsons in all of 1998, with 22, or 56.4 percent, set by juveniles, he said.

Fires set by children in other areas of Washington County are also on the rise, according to Ted Meminger, deputy chief state fire marshal for the western region.

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Countywide statistics were unavailable but Meminger called the situation a "significant problem."

Along with formal fire education, there must be "increased parental responsibility and community involvement," said Weller.

Parents have a responsibility to educate their children about the proper use of fire, to keep matches and lighters in a safe place and to establish consistent rules and penalties about firesetting, he said.

For children 8 years old and younger, parents need to establish a strict, "do not touch/tell an adult" policy for firesetting, he said.

For those over 8, parents should "teach children that fire is an important tool for use in society. Let them help start the grill and explain what will happen if proper care isn't taken," he said.

Weller estimated that 80 percent of children who set fires will continue to do so unless an adult intervenes.

To help prevent juvenile arson, Weller said people need to understand why children set fires.

He classifies juveniles who set fires as either curious firesetters or problem firesetters.

Curious firesetters are usually under the age of 8 and experiment with fire, perhaps because they are fascinated by the color or flames, Weller said.

He said these children often start several fires in or near their homes before getting caught or causing a large blaze. About 60 percent of Hagerstown's juvenile arson problem involves curious firesetters.

Parents should not ignore warning signs such as finding small burns on toys or furniture, Weller said.

"It can be very lethal behavior," because young children setting these types of fires aren't aware of how fast a fire can spread, he said.

An intensive refresher course on fire safety education at Children's Village is effective for more than 90 percent of this type of firestarter, he said.

Weller said juvenile problem arsonists account for the remaining 40 percent of fires set in the city and these young people can be further categorized as delinquent, crisis or pathological firesetters.

Delinquent juvenile arsonists may range in age from 8 up to the teen years and account for 30 percent of the local problem, he said.

"These children often say they are bored with life and wanted something to do," said Weller.

They are usually in the company of other youths when they start fires away from their homes, in woods, trash bins and outside buildings.

The parents of these young arsonists should set consequences for firesetting for their children just as they would for any other crime, and they must enforce them, said Weller.

Parents should not assume their children won't set fires but should tell them it is wrong and why and seek intervention, he said.

In Maryland, any person 7 or older who purposely destroys property or sets a fire can be arrested, said Weller.

About 10 percent of Hagerstown's youth arsons can be attributed to what Weller calls crisis firesetters.

These are children age 4 and older who are acting out because of underlying stress, he said.

"They demand attention to the problem and a fire will get it," he said. These children start fires in their homes or in the immediate vicinity.

Less than 1 percent of fires set locally are committed by pathological firesetters, said Weller.

These are people 6 years old to adulthood who have developed a chronic problem because no one stepped in to help them stop, according to Weller.

"Pathological firesetters may set hundreds of fires and often keep a record of fires set," said Weller.

An assessment of why they started the fires and clinical support such as counseling is needed for these types of firesetters, he said. Incarceration may be required, he added.

Parents shouldn't panic if they suspect their children are exhibiting such behaviors.

"All children have a natural curiosity about fire. Proper education will resolve most situations," Weller said.

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