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Juvenile Set Fires: Using Data to Make a Difference

By Joseph E. Thomas Jr.

May 8, 2013 Back


Can data make a difference in fire service efforts to reduce the incidents of problem firesetting involving juveniles?  It absolutely can, it does, and it must.  The State of Maine is using data sources to provide real information on the scope of firesetting issues and, most importantly, what can be implemented to combat the problem.

First, key professionals completed a review of data sources on fire activity that has juvenile involvement.  The National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS)   provided incident data for the period of 2000 through 2010 and revealed juvenile-set fires accounted for 2,801 fires, 16 fatalities, 129 injuries to civilians and fire service personnel, and dollar loss totaling $43,590,312. This source is most likely believed to underreport the scope of the problem as not all fields of information in the incident report are required to be completed.  Local fire departments are strongly encouraged to completely fill out NFIRS incident reports.

Second, the Uniform Crime Reports, or UCR data is available and identifies juveniles that have been charged with arson and/or other associated crimes by law enforcement agencies.  In 2010, 29 Maine juveniles were arrested and charged with Arson, including 24 males and 5 females.  Most revealing in the UCR data were the greater proportion of arrests for 13-14 year olds.

In 1999, the National Association of State Fire Marshal’s (NASFM) through an OJJDP  grant commissioned a study of juvenile firesetting in the United States,  with a resulting initiative towards supporting the development of local and regional juvenile firesetting collaboratives.  Through NASFM, participating communities were provided technical training and assistance, including a model for gathering information about a firesetting juvenile during and after intervention.  This data is critical to Maine juvenile firesetting efforts as it reveals a significant increase in firesetting by our middle school age youth.

So how does the gathering of data make a difference in juvenile firesetting intervention? Foremost, it provides you with the facts to prove there is a fire problem with juvenile fire behavior.

In the State of Maine our data was used to educate our state government leaders of the scope of this problem, and more importantly, the need to address it.  With the strong support of then Governor John E. Baldacci, on June 17, 2008 an Executive Order creating the Maine Juvenile Fire Safety Collaborative was signed and charged with preventing injuries, the loss of life, and the loss of property from juvenile set fires.   This order mandates participation by multiple agencies including Public Safety and State Fire Marshal’s Office, Human Services, Education, Corrections, Forest Service, Chief Justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, Law Enforcement and Fire Service representation, Pine Tree Burn Foundation, and others.

As the National Fire Information Council states, data is “Fighting Fire with Facts”.  Only through the use of data and its interpretation will our intervention efforts make a difference.  Data gives us the necessary information to affect change.  It is imperative all disciplines involved in the juvenile fire intervention educate the providers of data (fire departments, school principals, mental health workers, etc.) about value it holds.  Data-driven practices allow agencies to meet the needs of the firesetting youth and maintain the safety of families and the public. Substantive facts, not numbers alone, allow agencies and individuals to make informed decisions for addressing problem firesetting, and to prioritize intervention with limited services.  So much can be learned about the scope of juvenile firesetting from what is documented.  It is not just a report but a story of a juvenile, a fire situation, and leads us to learn “why?”.  Only by knowing “why” can we fix what is wrong.  Truly, data can make the difference.

About The Author

Joseph E. Thomas Jr.

Joe entered the Portland Fire Department in 1973. During his career Joe was promoted to Lieutenant, Captain, Deputy Chief and from 1992 to 2000 he was Chief of Department. In 2000 Joe retired from the Portland Fire Department to take a position with the State Fire Marshal’s Office in Augusta. He was named State Fire Marshal in 2012. Joe is earned his earned his Bachelor’s Degree and Master’s Degree from the University of Southern Maine.