My local paper reported on a volunteer firefighter who is facing a first-degree arson charge for allegedly setting a home ablaze while its resident slept inside. The article was a reminder about the dangers of a fire chief unknowingly hiring an arsonist and the importance of weeding out high-risk candidates. But how do you do it? The first step is trusting your gut and asking the right questions.
With a seemingly lack of volunteers available, sometimes chief officers feel pressured to take whomever they can get. However, choosing the right candidate from the start can save chiefs from the legal and public-relations nightmares of having arsonists in their midst. There is help available. First, the National Volunteer Fire Council developed a report that addresses the patterns of behavior and the impact on departments’ reputations. Second, psychiatric nurse Pamela Kulbarsh — who has worked with officers and deputies as a member of San Diego's Psychiatric Emergency Response Team — offered FIRE CHIEF some tips.
Kulbarsh emphasized that firefighter arson is considered rare. Indeed, she said revenge often is the greatest motive for arson. However, excitement tops the lists of motivations — meaning those are the ones who are thrill-seekers and want to get attention. This is the result of a hero complex and often stems from a histrionic personality disorder, a condition in which people act in an emotional and dramatic way that draws attention to themselves. So, if chiefs have candidates who are attention-seekers, obsessed with fire or focused on the glory of heroism, they may be those prone to start a fire simply to put it out and save the day.
Other resources continue to become available. This week, the NVFC launched an online database to collect incident data. The database was developed in response to the aforementioned 2011 report examining the firefighter arson problem, which highlighted the absence of firefighter arson data collection systems. Now, users can view over 900 entries documented in the media since the year 2000 and can also submit known case data. The data comes from surveying media reports and is sorted by state.
So, do you have an arsonist on your team? If so, what have you done to resolve the situation and what advice would you share with your fellow chief officers on handling the situation?