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Juvenile arson: the importance of early intervention.

Early one December morning, a blaze broke out in a tenement house. This wood-framed dwelling consisted of balloon construction with no built-in fire stops, which allowed the flames to travel easily from one part of the building to the other. Blazes in these types of structures present a nightmare for firefighters because the fire can sneak up on them.


When the call came in, the fire department scrambled into action. Personnel arrived and began suppression operations with military-like precision. Shortly thereafter, a private reported to the scene to provide relief. He went to the second-floor porch to extinguish some hot spots when the structure suddenly gave way and the second- and third-level porch roofs collapsed, crushing and trapping the firefighter under the debris. Despite Herculean efforts to rescue him, he died 2 days later of massive injuries. (1)

While the victim firefighter lay dying in a nearby hospital, his killer, a 12-year-old boy, sat nervously in an interview room. Fire investigation officers never consider the stakes higher than when a firefighter faces death at the hands of an arsonist. Families and communities find the pain just as intense if those hands belong to a juvenile. Authorities do not relax procedures when "only a kid" sets the fire.

Juvenile firesetting transcends easily defined professional boundaries. Because it involves fire, communities often expect the fire service to handle it. As this behavior sometimes derives its motivation from complex psychological dynamics, people often consider it an issue for mental health professionals to address. Also, setting certain types of blazes is a crime, assumed appropriate for law enforcement and the juvenile justice system to handle. In reality, effectively addressing juvenile firesetting by identifying it, holding the youth and family accountable, and providing appropriate assessment and intervention requires all three disciplines to work together as a coordinated team. Only then can the protection of property and the safety of both the youth and the community be ensured.



For well over 15 years, juveniles have contributed significantly to the number of arsons in the United States. In 2001, they represented 49 percent of all arson arrests. (2) Many additional blazes set by youths go undetected, unreported, or unsolved. As a result, these incidents have not appeared in databases that track incendiary fires. Between 2000 and 2002, authorities referred 1,241 Massachusetts juveniles to counseling services because of arsons. However, only 11 percent of these blazes involved a fire department response. (3) No one either reported these incidents to the proper authorities or considered the behavior dangerous because no loss of life or significant destruction of property occurred.

Only within the last 20 years have empirically based studies of juvenile firesetting begun to tease apart the many dynamics and variables associated with this dangerous behavior. (4) These findings have provided a better understanding of how to assess these actions and conduct appropriate intervention.

Many children display an interest in fire and a willingness to take that fascination a step further in actually playing with it. A study of youths from the third to eighth grades in 15 school districts throughout Oregon revealed that 32 percent of the students reported setting fires outside their homes and 29 percent said that they had started them in their residences. (5) Firesetting or playing with matches with no intent of causing extensive damage or hurting anyone occurs in the general population with some degree of regularity. Additionally, in 63 percent of the arsons by juveniles, a match or lighter served as the source of ignition. (6)

Data suggest that boys clearly outnumber girls in setting fires. A review of previous descriptive studies found that males held responsibility for 82 percent of the arsons; (7) other findings suggested a ratio of 9 boys to every girl involved in setting fires. (8) Other conclusions revealed that in 1993, females represented 12.5 percent of the juveniles arrested for firesetting--an increase of almost 53 percent compared with 1989 findings. (9)

Although children as young as 2 and 3 years of age can be involved in firesetting, it appears that this behavior generally occurs among older children. In a variety of studies, the mean age of children and adolescents identified as setting fires ranged from 9 to 12 years old. (10) Age alone cannot mitigate the serious effects of arson. Blazes caused by younger children often incur the most damage, cause the most monetary loss, and displace more individuals than fires set by adolescents. (11)

Numerous studies have focused on the relationship between family dysfunction and firesetting behavior in juveniles. (12) Findings revealed that parents of juvenile arsonists often experience personal and marital distress, and their children have exposure to stressful life events, poor supervision, and minimal family affiliation. There also were indications of greater parental psychopathology. (13) Additionally, parenting styles appeared inconsistent and comprised of harsh punishment and ineffective enforcement of consequences for undesirable behavior. (14) While earlier studies focused on the absence of a parent or a lack of parental involvement in the lives of these youths, (15) later research revealed that the level of disruption, poor parenting skills, and skewed emotional interactions in the family appeared more salient. (16)

From firesetting research, a picture has emerged of juveniles with low self-esteem, limited social problem-solving skills, and hampered abilities in negotiating complex social interactions. This may help explain why such a high prevalence of covert antisocial behavior exists among juveniles who set fires. Such conduct, while perhaps offering the opportunity to act out aggressive impulses, also helps avoid the humiliation of being caught and confronted by an authority figure in a problematic situation. Juveniles involved in arson may have few alternatives for addressing issues that arise in their lives, particularly in social settings and situations involving conflict. Setting fires appears to give them an outlet for their anger, distress, and anxiety--feelings that many of these youths have difficulty handling. Frequently, these juveniles report that they start blazes because of boredom or a lack of anything to do; (17) managing these feelings, just like handling other negative ones, requires a certain level of coping skills. These young arsonists tend to act impulsively and in an externalizing fashion when confronted with situations that provoke intense reactions, rather than thinking first about the consequences of their behavior.


While an awareness of the clinical complexities associated with juvenile firesetting provides one perspective on this behavior, simply understanding what drives youths to arson does not solve the problem. Young people need intervention services; this requires a coordinated approach. Mental health and social service professionals should ask about the behavior and screen for it when working with a family or a youth. Fire service and law enforcement authorities must identify incidents linked to juveniles and either charge the youth for the offense or notify appropriate professionals to mandate services.

Many times, people perceive charging juveniles with a crime distasteful or worry that the youths will have a criminal record that will hamper them in the future. Alternatively, authorities could allow an incident to go unnoticed, thus taking a risk that the child may continue to set fires, destroy property, and injure or kill others. Charging a juvenile for arson is not an attempt to criminalize the behavior or to stigmatize the youth. Instead, it represents a way to hold juveniles accountable for their actions. It helps youths and their families take the behavior seriously and recognize the need for an effective intervention program. Bringing charges ensures that this extremely dangerous and often-overlooked behavior receives the attention it deserves so that the fire that brought the juvenile to the attention of authorities is the last one the youth sets.

Investigating the Fire

Conducting the investigation proves difficult because fire, by nature, destroys the evidence surrounding its cause and starting point. Officials find more destruction the closer they get to the point of origin. Fire scene investigators trace a blaze's origin by reading patterns--first examining the area of most damage, the one which exhibits the lowest and deepest burns. Often, they arrive on scene and find the entire structure reduced to ashes.

Arson canines represent reliable forensic fire investigators. These dogs can sniff out the residue of accelerants that serve as the clearest indicators of incendiary fires. However, unless arsonists spill something on themselves and remain standing with the crowd watching the scene, the canine's incredible detective skills alone cannot identify the firesetter.

When responding to a fire, investigators must find, identify, and take statements from all witnesses. The interviews should begin before the blaze is extinguished. Ideally, the number of personnel at the site will allow for a group of interviewers to canvass the crowd and a team to investigate the blaze; this way, both jobs get done simultaneously. In the event that investigators must choose between beginning the origin-and-cause investigation or taking statements first, the authors recommend the latter. Emergency personnel can secure and preserve the fire scene; however, witnesses vanish as time elapses.

Witnesses do not always perceive the value of what they know. Effective interviewers on the scene can collect a surprising amount of information about, for example, who lived in the building or owned it. They can learn where and when the first signs of smoke and flame appeared, what typical routine the neighborhood follows, and whether anything unusual occurred at about the same time as someone first shouted, "Fire!" Witnesses also prove critical for establishing motive for the blaze because of their knowledge of neighborhood residents. While effective interviewers will get these people to talk and commit to a statement of facts, inexperienced investigators might inadvertently clear the scene and lose the opportunity to collect information from key players. Every officer can become a better interviewer by learning and practicing until they feel more confident.

Officers must understand that arson, by definition, is a crime of intent, which investigators can establish only through interviews and interrogations. To this end, agencies should strive to put together such a solid case that a suspect will find cooperation the only option.

Interviewing the Juvenile

Intent represents a state of mind; a person who intends to set a fire follows a specific course of action. The investigator must articulate that intent to a jury, and the best way to do that is through the subject's own words. In an ideal situation, collateral investigation, including forensics, would reveal what caused the blaze and who might have a motive to start it. However, the interview process often serves as the key to the arson investigation. A fire intentionally set in a wastebasket under a kitchen sink using a match will look the same from an origin-and-cause perspective as an accidental fire from a carelessly discarded cigarette. To this end, an effective interview can mean the difference between a fire remaining unsolved and one with cause clearly determined and the offender under arrest.

Interviews have a distinct rhythm, with give-and-take between the subject and the interviewer. The juvenile typically offers a little, hoping the investigator will feel satisfied. The interviewer takes the available information, then prods to get a little more. However, if the investigator pushes too hard too soon, the interview will end. In the classic scenario, subjects test interviewers to see if they have figured out the real story. The investigator who does not know the truth is at a distinct disadvantage. Therefore, information from the early witness interviews and solid fire scene forensics serve as invaluable tools in the hands of a skilled interrogator.

The young man in the opening scenario provided investigators with an account of what he did during the 12 hours before the fire, at the time of the blaze, and the 12 hours after the incident, known as the "24-hour alibi." The interviewing officer established rapport with him and talked casually. The juvenile talked about an absentee mother, an out-of-state father, and a psychologically distant stepfather.


The interview progressed with the usual give-and-take rhythm. The interviewer kept the subject talking to see how much he would tell. The child started by explaining that he discovered the blaze after it already was burning. Next, he acknowledged his presence in the room when it began. Then, he admitted starting the fire "accidentally." He came up with an alternative theory for how the blaze began--using a lighter, he was looking for a necklace under a couch and did not realize that the flame had ignited the upholstery until it was too late.

Both the 12-year-old subject and the interviewer knew the truth--he intentionally had set the couch on fire. To move him to a complete confession, the investigator relied on the evidence he had developed. The boy finally admitted to using paper and plastic for fuel, then stretching out on the bed in the next room, waiting for the fire to develop before calling it in. His final confession included all of the details, dispassionately told.

Criminals often confess to a crime because they like the interviewer. Investigators also can achieve this result by enhancing their credibility, gained through a desire to become a better interviewer. In this regard, officers can develop skills and knowledge in these critical areas: understanding legal issues involved in interviewing juveniles, collecting background information, applying the IRONIC interview method, and documenting the statement.

Understanding Legal Issues

Investigators must understand legal definitions of ages. For instance, the age of criminal intent--the minimum age juveniles must attain before they can commit a criminal act--varies from state to state. In Massachusetts, once youths reach the age of 7, they "legally" can commit a crime. In Colorado, that age is 10. In Ohio, no statute exists that addresses the minimum age of criminal intent; courts decide this on a case-by-case basis.

The age at which states consider an individual an adult also varies. In Massachusetts, once youths reach 17, they no longer are juveniles and receive treatment as adults under the law. In Ohio, a person becomes an adult at 18.

Investigators also must consider the presence of parents or legal guardians during the interview process. Interviewers must make any parent present an ally, not an adversary. They should sit down with parents prior to the interrogation and alleviate their stress by explaining the importance of talking to their child. The investigator should not use words that increase parents' stress level and make them apprehensive about allowing their child to be interviewed; phrases like "clear up the situation" and "help your child" will prove more effective than harsher words like "court appearances" and "jail time." Opportunities for statements can become forfeited by not including the parents in the process and, thus, losing their cooperation.

Collecting Background Information

Investigators can enhance their investigations by collecting background information. This includes examining databases, running criminal record checks, and visiting the housing court.

Also, when documenting background information, investigators should determine if the juvenile takes medication and the specific effects of the drug. The predominant psychiatric diagnosis for juvenile firesetters is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), affecting 38 percent of the sample of 1,241 children in Massachusetts. (18) Youths on medication for ADHD may have memory problems and lose clarity of thinking at a particular time of day, often around 5 p.m. as they "dose down." This can affect the quality of the interview. Knowing the juveniles' medication history and planning the best time of day to interview them can be critical.

Juveniles who engage in setting fires tend to show patterns of more disruptive, aggressive, and delinquent behavior than do other youths. Many of the juveniles may be diagnosed as having conduct disorder or oppositional defiant behavior. (19) Firesetting itself is one of the strongest predictors of this disorder in youths. (20) These juveniles also tend to have difficulties with social interactions and problem solving in social situations. (21) They show a low capacity for solving conflicts in a socially acceptable manner. (22)

Applying the IRONIC Method

Conducting an interview involves a step-by-step process. The IRONIC method serves as an easily remembered pneumonic that identifies the procedures involved in taking any statement: introduction, rapport, opening statement, narrative, inquiry, and conclusion. (23)

In the introduction, officers identify themselves before the interview begins. They can do this easily by showing credentials, such as a badge or a business card.

Next, rapport requires the interviewer to find some common ground that the juvenile enjoys discussing. Examples include sports, pets, travel, family, or hobbies. This critical phase begins immediately and continues throughout the interview.

Then, the opening statement informs the subject of the reason for the interview. For example, "I am here today because of the fire next door to your house."

Next, the narrative allows the juvenile to provide a full, uninterrupted account of what happened. By allowing the subject to describe the incident, a wealth of information becomes available. The interviewer closely should analyze the juvenile's verbatim words. A written or recorded and transcribed verbal statement allows the interviewer to analyze the account without contaminating it with leading questions. (24) After the completion of the uninterrupted statement, the interviewer asks follow-up questions to determine answers to who, what, when, where, why, and how. The purpose of each interview will dictate the specific types of questions to ask.

Then, the inquiry serves to document the answers to specific questions asked of the interviewee. Investigators should write these questions word-for-word and record the answers verbatim.

Finally, the conclusion wraps up the interview. Interviewers should thank subjects for their time and ask if they will be available for a second interview, if necessary. They also should provide the interviewee with a telephone number for any further contact.

Documenting the Statement

An interview has little value in court if not documented properly; interviewers can do this in a variety of ways. Some examples, all legally sufficient, are listed in ascending order of typical value to judges and juries.

* Investigators write a summary after the interview.

* Investigators write statements and have the subjects sign them.

* Subjects write out their own statements and sign them (investigators should ensure that subjects do not overly minimize their actions).

* Subjects provide statements on audiotape.

* Subjects provide statements on videotape (this method has the advantage of documenting the subjects' words and demeanor during the statements).


Knowledge of a juvenile's background also can help determine the best method of documentation. A dyslexic suspect, for instance, may have trouble reading and writing. Using pen and paper to document the statement may embarrass the interviewee and shut down the interview. In this case, using a tape recorder or video camera would serve better.

Interviewers should write the date and time of the statement at the top. Juveniles' biographical information, such as name, address, and date of birth, also is recorded, along with their educational level and prior experience within the legal system (thus demonstrating their understanding of it). The subject and parents should sign and date the statement and initial the top and bottom of each page, as well as any corrections made (showing the juvenile's involvement in writing the statement). Also, interviewers must note if the subject took any cigarette or bathroom breaks while providing the statement and if the youth used the phone or had anything to eat or drink; documenting such actions establishes that the statement was not taken under duress, that the juveniles' rights were protected, and that it was given voluntarily. After the completion of the statement, the interviewer should have the juvenile draw a diagram of what occurred or write an apology letter if they admit to the crime.


Juvenile firesetters are a specific group of offenders. Successful investigation of these individuals requires knowledge of the patterns of young arsonists, as well as a carefully structured interview approach. Only by identifying juvenile firesetters early can intervention techniques hope to prevent continued, escalating criminal behavior. A comprehensive, well-balanced approach to this problem can help ensure the safety of the young offenders and the community.

The authors express their gratitude to Irene Pinsonneault, director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Juvenile Firesetter Intervention Programs, and Susan Adams, retired FBI special agent, for their assistance with this article.


(1) Paul Zipper, "Talking the Talk: Tips and Techniques for Interviewing Juveniles," in Handbook on Firesetting in Children and Youth, ed. David J. Kolko (San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 2002).

(2) U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States, 2001 (Washington, DC, 2002).

(3) Massachusetts Coalition for Juvenile Firesetter Intervention Programs, Kids and Fire: Intervention and Education, 2002 Annual Report (Westport Point, MA, 2002).

(4) David J. Kolko, "Juvenile Firesetting: A Review and Methodological Critique," Clinical Psychology Review 5 (1985): 345-376; David J. Kolko, "Research Studies on the Problem," in Handbook on Firesetting in Children and Youth, ed. David J. Kolko (San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 2002); Vaughan A. Hardesty and William F. Gayton, "The Problem of Children and Fire," in Handbook on Firesetting in Children and Youth, ed. David J. Kolko (San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 2002); and Jeffrey L. Geller, "Arson in Review," Clinical Forensic Psychiatry 15, no. 3 (1992): 623-645.

(5) Oregon Office of the State Fire Marshal, 2000 Juvenile Firesetting: Annual Report (Salem, OR, 2001).

(6) United States Fire Administration, Children and Fire in the United States: 1994-1997 (Washington, DC, 2000).

(7) Supra note 4 (Kolko, 1985).

(8) K.R. Fineman, "Firesetting in Childhood and Adolescence," Psychiatry Clinics of North America 3 (1980): 483-500.

(9) U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Female Offenders in the Juvenile Justice System (NCJ 160941) (Washington, DC, 1996).

(10) G.A. Heath, V.A. Hardesty, P.E. Goldfine, and A.M. Walker, "Childhood

Firesetting: An Empirical Study," Journal of the American Academy of child Psychiatry 22 (1983): 370-374; David J. Kolko and A.E. Kazdin, "Matchplay and Firesetting in Children: Relationship to Parent, Marital, and Family Dysfunction," Journal of Clinical Child Psychology 19, no. 3 (1990): 229-238; and supra note 3.

(11) Supra note 3.

(12) E.R. Bumpass, F.D. Fagelman, and R. J. Brix, "Intervention With Children Who Set Fires," American Journal of Psychotherapy 37 (1983); J. Gaynor and C. Hatcher, The Psychology of Child Firesetting: Detection and Intervention (New York, NY: Brunner/Mazel, 1987); David J. Kolko and A. E. Kazdin, "Parent-Child Correspondence in Identification of Firesetting Among Child Psychiatric Patients," Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 29 (1988): 175-184: David J. Kolko and A.E. Kazdin, "Motives of Childhood Firesetters: Firesetting Characteristics and Psychological Correlates," Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 32, no. 3 (1991): 535-550; David J. Kolko and A.E. Kazdin, "The Emergence and Recurrence of Child Firesetting: A One-Year Prospective Study." Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 20 (1992): 17-37; and E.B. Saunders and G.A. Awad, "Adolescent Female Firesetters," Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 36 (1991): 401-404.

(13) Supra note 10 (Kolko and Kazdin).

(14) Supra note 10 (Kolko and Kazdin).

(15) Brandi Simonsen and Michael Bullis, Institute on Violence and Destructive Behavior, University of Oregon, in partnership with Judy Okulitch and Carol Baumann, Oregon Office of the State Fire Marshal and Oregon Fire Service, Fire Interest Survey: Final Report (Salem, OR, 2001).

(16) Supra note 10 (Kolko and Kazdin).

(17) Supra note 12 (Kolko and Kazdin, 1988).

(18) Supra note 3.

(19) Supra note 10 (Heath, Hardesty, Goldfine, and Walker); David J. Kolko, A.E. Kazdin, and E.C. Meyers, "Aggression and Psychopathology in Childhood Firesetters: Parent and Child Reports," Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 53 (1985): 377-385; and supra note 12 (Kolko and Kazdin, 1988).

(20) J. Kelso and M.A. Stewart, "Factors Which Predict the Persistence of Aggressive Conduct Disorder," Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 27 (1986): 77-86.

(21) Supra note 10 (Heath, Hardesty, Goldfine, and Walker); and supra note 19 (Kolko, Kazdin, and Meyers).

(22) R.G. Vreeland and B.M. Levin, "Psychological Aspects of Firesetting," in Fires and Human Behaviour, ed. D. Canter (Chichester, England: John Wiley and Sons, 1980).

(23) For additional information, supra note 1.

(24) For additional information, see Vincent A. Sandoval, "Strategies to Avoid Interview Contamination," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, October 2003, 1-12.


Dr. Zipper, a sergeant with the Massachusetts State Police, currently is assigned to the Office of the State Fire Marshal in Stow.

Dr. Wilcox is the clinical coordinator for the Massachusetts Coalition for Juvenile Firesetter Intervention Programs and also an instructor at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge.
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Author:Wilcox, David K.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
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Date:Apr 1, 2005
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