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IAFF Youth Firesetting Data Project

By Ed Comeau

May 14, 2014 Back

Youth firesetting is a problem across the nation. Just how big of a problem is not clear because there is insufficient data collection on a national level. There are a number of programs collecting data locally, but developing a big-picture view is far more difficult.

The United States Fire Administration (USFA), through its National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) has been collecting some information on youth firesetting for a number of years, but it is well recognized that this data does not encompass the entire problem. In addition, NFIRS is an incident-driven data collection system, which means that an entry is only created when a fire department responds to an incident.  Not all youth firesetting events receive a fire department response, and a child with these behaviors may not always come to the attention of a fire department. A social service agency or law enforcement may have the first encounter with a youth. Neither have access to the NFIRS system, so no entry would be made.

A number of organizations across the nation are developing intervention programs and working with youth in a variety of ways. Just as with the fire, social service and law enforcement agencies, there is no centralized, coordinated mechanism to collect information.

All of this creates barriers to understanding the scale of the problem and the nature of the offender. Without sharing information, or having a central repository of data, it is difficult to develop evidence-based solutions to the problem on a national level that can be deployed locally. In addition, without this type of information, resources are not being focused on solving the problem of youth firesetting simply because it is not necessarily being perceived as a large problem. If the data does not point to a youth firesetting problem, communities are not going to dedicate dollars to try to fix it.

The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Charitable Burn Foundation was awarded a DHS Fire Prevention and Safety Grant to start addressing this problem and develop a framework for moving towards a solution. This represented one of the most comprehensive efforts to bring together to start looking at the issues and hurdles that would have to be overcome. All are in agreement that something needs to be done, and this grant project was the catalyst that started much of the discussion towards developing a means to collect consistent information in a standardized way.

The first and one of the biggest milestones is the discussion of youth firesetting is taking place. This has brought the problem into focus and provided an opportunity for people to share their ideas and thoughts based on the experiences of their programs. People have been working locally on the problem, though there hasn’t been an opportunity or mechanism to bring them together nationally.

There are different views on youth firesetting. Some clinicians consider youth firesetting to be a symptom, rather than a diagnosis, and there isn’t a good system for tracking, in the mental health system, children showing these symptoms, according to some experts. There is also a concern over data quality being entered into the NFIRS system since the fire officers making the entry may not be trained to recognize the signs of a youth firesetter and NFIRS is not designed to fully capture the right information.

Since the focus of the DHS grant is to develop the framework leading towards the development of a national database for sharing information, a key issue is common terminology. A major undertaking was to develop a common language that could serve the needs of the different organizations and disciplines involved.

Another important issue was providing a mechanism wherein professionals from different disciplines can contribute into a centralized database. Right now, NFIRS is predominant, but it is only accessible by the fire service. Professionals from social service agencies or law enforcement may be the first to encounter a youth, but there is no mechanism to capture this information into a database unless there happens to be one on the local level.  This disparity adds to the problem because we don’t know the full scope and nature of youth firesetting; different disciplines are collecting different pieces of information.

This leads to a third problem. There are a number of local databases created in the absence of a national one, capturing a variety of information. Without this type of information being widely shared, it is difficult to develop evidence-based intervention strategies that can work outside of a specific jurisdiction.

A review of databases was done to determine how they worked, what elements they captured, and to see if there was an opportunity to merge them together or share information.  Because of the way they are structured, it would be difficult to merge the local ones together, and access into the national ones is problematic because they are limited to law enforcement or fire service personnel. In addition, systems such as NFIRS would require substantial changes and there is no funding available to make the type of changes that would be needed.

All of this work was done under Phase I of the project. A subsequent grant for Phase II was awarded to expand upon it and develop concrete recommendations. A prototype database was developed in partnership with a database vendor, using the elements of the data dictionary, and it was pilot tested in several communities across the nation where local experts entered data from past youth firesetting incidents.

The initial results of this pilot test are very positive in testing the protocols and data dictionary as well as field-testing the concept. This points to the need for a central data collection system to close this gap, as well as a possible solution developed by the collaborative efforts of almost three-dozen stakeholders.  Recognizing the importance of this work, the IAFF is going to continue working in this area, expanding upon the outstanding work accomplished.

For more information, contact Phil Tammaro from the IAFF Charitable Foundation-Burn Fund at:

Email:  3rddistrictburnfoundation@iaff.org

Phone:  (978) 502-8706

About The Author

Ed Comeau

Ed Comeau is the owner of writer-tech.com, a technical writing firm. He was a chief fire investigator with the NFPA, a fire protection engineer with the Phoenix Fire Department Special Operations Division and a member of the Amherst Fire Department while pursuing a degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Massachusetts.

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