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A Statewide Initiative for Youth Who Set Fires

By Thomas Leonard and Joseph Tondorf

Dec 1, 2010 Back


For nearly three decades Massachusetts provided juvenile firesetter intervention services through a loosely formed coalition of providers. This coalition was originally based in the city of Fall River and received modest funding from the state through the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy, which is now a division of the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services. This initial funding was later increased to a more substantial amount through the Massachusetts Department of Social Services.

However, funding was ultimately eliminated and the coordination of the programs through the coalition faltered.  While the funding and the programs fell through, the need for services has continued. Service providers, in many cases, have continued to bring varying levels of service to those regions and communities on an ad hoc basis without the benefit of any statewide leadership or secure funding.

In 2007, recognizing that fires being set by juveniles was continuing to increase, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan met to discuss best practices to address the need for services.  The initial meeting determined that several state organizations shared a piece of the responsibility to provide both solutions and funding to address the lack of consistent services.  It was decided that in order to address the lack of funding and coordination, all interested stakeholders should be at a common table to initiate a dialogue and set an agenda for coordinated action.

With this awareness from law enforcement, fire service leadership and determination, the Massachusetts Juvenile Firesetter Stakeholders Group was born.  The initial group included representatives from the State Fire Marshal’s office,  fire services,  the Attorney General’s office, law enforcement,  the Massachusetts Property Underwriters Insurance Association (MPUIA – more commonly known as the FAIR Plan), a multitude of state level social service agencies, juvenile justice entities and district attorneys.  This group also included The Brandon School, which represented many of the private and not for profit service providers.

Since its inception the Stakeholders Group has worked towards accomplishing several goals including:

  • Developing a consistent and statewide response to firesetting that offers equal services to all residents
  • Creating active partnerships between Stakeholder agencies to increase service capacity
  • Creating sustainable funding mechanisms for service providers and programs and to support full time coordination
  • Developing a statewide strategic plan and service management contract
  • Creating an information and data warehouse to further identify the scope of problem and need for service
  • Providing appropriate training for all stakeholders

Over the course of the past two years there were significant areas of progress as well as continued challenges.  Progress was made by identifying service areas and providers, and developing strong partnership relationships within the stakeholders group.  These partnerships are strengthened by the personal commitment of the stakeholder members themselves as well as the agency commitment of the participating groups.

The Department of Children and Families (DCF) previously established a multi agency Procurement Management Team (PMT) to secure a statewide service management contract.  A service provider was to be chosen to coordinate statewide programs and services.  The contract has not been funded due to the present economic climate but work continues with the PMT in the event that funding becomes available.

The data collection subcommittee continues to work on the development of a simple and easy to use data collection tool.  This collection instrument, when fully implemented, will help the stakeholders better quantify the scope of the juvenile fire issue in Massachusetts.  When combined with previously collected data from the original coalition sites, a significant amount of information will be available to demonstrate the extent of the problem to legislators. This would give grant authorities knowledge of regional based needs.

The most important work to date is the development of a training curriculum with a sustainable training delivery component, and the actual delivery of programs to high level managers in all of the affected disciplines.  In the spring of 2008 the Massachusetts Juvenile Fire Setting Stakeholders Group established a Training Subcommittee.  The subcommittee was made up of representatives from various disciplines to include:

  • The State Fire Marshal’s Office
  • Fire Services
  • The Attorney General’s Office
  • The District Attorney’s Offices
  • Juvenile Courts
  • Law Enforcement
  • Brandon School
  • The Department of Children and Families
  • The Department of Mental Health
  • The Department of Youth Services

The purpose of the subcommittee was to develop a plan for the delivery of statewide training over the next 12 months.  The training audience was identified as the multi-disciplinary constituency groups who are impacted by juveniles who set fires.  Subsequent to the development of the two curriculums 20 trainers were trained and certified by the key curriculum authors.  All of the trainings were co-presented with a fire services trainer paired with either a law enforcement or mental health professional. A series of two hour awareness trainings were held over the next nine months in all geographic areas of the state.  Approximately 300 professionals from the state mental health/social services agencies, juvenile courts, district attorney’s offices, law enforcement and fire services have participated in the training.

Immediately after completing the awareness curriculums, the subcommittee began the task of developing expanded, four hour, more skill based curriculums for first responders, district attorneys, juvenile court staff, clinicians, social workers and other “direct users” of the system.  The plan over the next 12 months is to take this training “on the road” in Massachusetts to the hundreds of professionals from the variety of constituencies who are impacted by kids who set fires.  This is the message that we carry: Maybe more than any other problematic juvenile behavior, setting fires requires a multi-disciplinary approach.  We all must work together.

Despite these advances we continue to be faced with challenges.  Funding continues to be one of the most significant challenges for the group to overcome.  Through the dedication and efforts of staff from the Attorney General’s Office and the Department of Fire Services, grant applications have been submitted but to date we have not secured funding as hoped.  The present fiscal condition in the Commonwealth has not been conducive to any increases in state funding or the ability of fire and social service agencies to carve out meaningful dollars to further support the efforts of the stakeholders to date.  Private funding opportunities have been limited; however, our partners from MPUIA, continue to assist in behind the scenes financial support whenever possible.  Without their continued assistance our programs would be even more limited.  The development of the strategic plan has been a cornerstone of our grant applications and, with the lack of funding to support that development, progress has been extremely limited.

Despite funding obstacles, the passion and dedication of our group continues unabated.  Agencies have allowed their people to work on projects and initiatives in addition to their regular duties, and through these efforts, and with a continued level of commitment from our private partners, progress is significant.

About The Author

Thomas Leonard and Joseph Tondorf

Thomas P. Leonard has been a member of the fire service since 1966 and served 17 years on the Mansfield Fire Department, the last five as chief.

In 1983 he joined the staff of the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy and later became Deputy State Fire Marshal for the Commonwealth when the state Department of Fire Services was created.

Joseph Tondorf has served as the Chief Operations Officer at Brandon for over 18 years. He holds advanced graduate degrees in both education and counseling and served as teacher, counselor, and administrator within the Boston Public Schools for nearly two decades. He has served as a Director and Member of several Boards of Directors for various social service and educational agencies.