Knowing the profile of an arsonist is the first step in combating illegal incidents that take lives and destroy property. In fact, there exists a pattern of behavior that can help the community at large recognize whether an arsonist attends their school, lives in their neighborhood or even is a member of their fire department. While a recent report developed by the National Volunteer Fire Council addresses firefighter arson, including the patterns of behavior and the impact on fire departments’ reputations, cases are rare. Instead, fire chiefs should keep their eye out for area youths, those seeking revenge and others in their community who may be starting fires for a variety of motives.
To help chiefs and the community recognize the motives behind an arsonist, Pamela Kulbarsh, RN, BSW, a psychiatric nurse located in Arizona, offered a profile of those who use fire to do harm. Kulbarsh has been a psychiatric nurse for more than 25 years and has worked in patrol with officers and deputies as a member of San Diego's Psychiatric Emergency Response Team and at the Pima County Detention Center in Tucson.
Has the number of arson incidents grown or stayed stagnant in the last five years?
It’s hard to tell because arson is one of those crimes for which only 15% of the population is ever arrested and 2% is convicted. The statistics aren’t there to say they have grown or haven’t grown. But it is the most expensive violent crime. It also kills more than 700* people per year.
What is the motive for arson?
Revenge is the greatest motive for arson. People who feel like they are wronged … they may become arsonists. However, excitement tops the lists. Those who are thrill seekers who want to get attention, cause havoc and be in the spotlight. It is a thrill game. Others are trying to destroy evidence, like a body in a murder, or collect insurance money on a burned out building. You also have those who attack abortion clinics or [facilities that] test animals for medication because they disagree with them.
What demographic often becomes arsonists?
It varies. But more than 50% of arson fires are caused by juveniles who work in pairs. Most are white. If they are not juveniles, they are younger adults from 25 to 30.
Are there personality traits associated with an arsonist?
Kids may have problems in school. While many have poor school performance, they often have higher-than-average intelligence. They also may have a personality disorder. People with personality disorders are your basic criminal.
What are the typical personality disorders of arsonists?
The antisocial personality disorder is one. If people don’t conform to what society wants, they have no empathy. They lie. They are con artists. They often are very charming. While kids cannot be diagnosed until they are 18 years old because their character is still developing, early signs are if they torture animals, destroy property, hurt others and set fires. The other type of personality disorder is the histrionic personality. These people are more like your firefighters, your heroes. They want to be in the spotlight. It is all about them. They want to be a hero.
All arsonists’ roots go back to childhood as a way of expressing anger or excitement. The type of fire they set will escalate from a dumpster fire to bigger thrills like a building.
What are warning signs, such as actions or words?
While firefighter arson is rare, one warning sign is that, right before setting a fire, most arsonists will really increase their intake of either drugs or alcohol. For kids, watch for their fascination with fire. For example, they may get overly excited from watching a toy burn in the fireplace, from setting fires in secret in the woods or mixing chemicals to create explosions.
What can be done through public education to teach others to recognize an arsonist?
I think really focusing on warning signs with kids that they could have a [mental] disorder. Kids can be cruel, like bullying. Kids can use arson as a way to vent issues. It is about educating teachers, schools and public safety about the warning signs. They need to know the behavior is not normal and may escalate.
* Revised 4/24/2012