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Clearing the Smoke at Home: An Early Intervention Program for Children & Parents

By Timothy Kopet, Ph.D., and Judith Okulitch, MS

May 8, 2013 Back


Children who misuse fire come from a variety of family and cultural backgrounds, can be any age, and misuse fire for a variety of reasons. As a result, we have learned that one size does not fit all when it comes to intervention.

Important questions for interventionists include: “what are the key components to an intervention program for children who misuse fire” and “what role does intervention play for the parents/caregiver?”

A multi-disciplinary team of professionals in the Portland Metro Oregon area formed Fire Safe Children and Families to provide effective early intervention services to youth under the age of 12 and their families that specifically addressed these two important questions.

Fire Safety Academy is a six session psycho-education program facilitated by a mental health professional and a firefighter. Children participate in group sessions that focus on fire safety and fire science, identification and expression of feelings, anger management and problem solving, coping skills, and decision making. As in many other youth-centered interventions, participation by parents and caregivers is a critical component for the youth to change their dangerous, risky and inappropriate firesetting behavior. A parent group is facilitated by a mental health professional and topics include relationship building between parent and child, parenting strategies, the legal consequences of misusing fire, and a parent’s financial responsibilities in youth-set fires.

While the parents are not assigned homework, they are urged to go over their child’s homework between sessions. Parents are cued about the homework so they are better equipped to help their child. For example, in the session focusing on developing better coping skills, we discuss coping skills with parents and have them come up with appropriate examples so that when their child asks them how they cope with stress, they are better equipped to answer in a manner that is genuine and offers good role modeling.

Fire safety topics are used to elicit cooperation and communication between the parent and the child. For many years, children have been asked to draw the floor plan of their home and map emergency exits in case of a fire. This lesson was recently revised so that the child now completes the floor plan along with his/her parent. As the pair completes the Guide for Home Escape Planning, (available from the Oregon Office of State Fire Marshal, they indicate the names and ages of all people residing in the home, if any family members need special help in evacuating the home, the locations of early warning alarms such as smoke alarms, who does what when an alarm sounds, planning two ways out, and the agreed-upon meeting place where the family is to gather. Our experience suggests that this shared process has led to greater agreement between caregiver and child about evacuation procedures, especially the family meeting place.

Fire Safety Academy strongly encourages both parents to attend and when appropriate and siblings are also encouraged to attend. During one recent group a parent who had always been at work and could not attend the screening, informed us about his issues with starting fires and how his son had learned this from his modeling. Once father took responsibility for his behavior, the family was very successful in the program. Another benefit of parent participation is that caregivers are usually very supportive to one another; some caregiver groups share phone numbers and continue to support each other after the last group meeting. The strong family focus in our program has increased its effectiveness by aiding parents to become more responsible for creating an environment of fire safety and helping parents model appropriate fire behavior for children in their homes.

For additional information on Fire Safety Academy please visit our website at or contact Dr. Timothy Kopet at or Judith Okulitch at

About The Author

Timothy Kopet, Ph.D., and Judith Okulitch, MS

Timothy is a clinical psychologist with Portland (OR) Public Schools and also maintains a private practice. Dr. Kopel is a contributing author and regularly consults with juvenile justice agencies, child welfare, and special education. Dr. Kopet developed the Juvenile Firesetter Needs Assessment Protocol with John Humphreys, LCSW and for the last 11 years he has facilitated a parent group for parents of firesetting children and provided assessment and treatment to many children and adolescents who have misused fire. He serves as the Clinical Director for the Fire Safe Children and Families Program.

Ms. Okulitch is the former Statewide Coordinator for the Youth Fire Prevention and Intervention Program at the Office of State Fire Marshal in Oregon. For over two decades, she has been responsible for establishing a continuum of care for youth involved with fire and their families using community based prevention, intervention and treatment programs. She chairs a statewide advisory group that sets long and short-term goals for the state’s intervention program. She directs the publication of Hot Issues, the first quarterly newsletter dealing specifically with the multi-disciplinary issues of juvenile firesetting.