Your parents probably told you early on not to play with matches. That good advice holds true today. Robert E. Cole is president of Fireproof Children/Prevention First. He also co-authored Juvenile Firesetting: A Community Guide to Prevention & Intervention. He says that there's been a steady decline in the number of child-set fires due to the introduction of the child-resistant lighter and better education, but there has not been a similar decline in deaths and injuries resulting from these fires. The estimated annual property damage from child-set fires is $400 million. So despite the decline in raw numbers, the parental warning bears repeating.
What types of children are most likely to start fires?
There is still little national data on children who set fires. The best information is from communities that keep good records about child-started fires. These data show that no single racial or ethnic group of children is more involved in fire play or firesetting than any other. They also show that more than half of children who start fires are between ages four and nine. As they get older, the frequency of child-started fires gets smaller. A surprising number of serious fires are started by very young children. Young children are most likely to start a fire inside their home (over half begin in bedrooms), and take greater risks simply because they don't understand the risks.
Are these fires intentional?
Given the young age of these children, a focus on intention is misplaced. Most children who play with fire never intend to cause damage or hurt anyone. Data collected in Rochester, N.Y., found that at least two out of three children who started a fire did not intend the results, and current NFPA data suggests that [it is] closer to 80%.
Are there typical contributing factors?
The major contributing factors to children setting fires are the same across communities. Too many families have several packs of matches or multiple lighters in their home and these are too often within sight and reach of children. [There is] inadequate supervision and absence of clear rules. Parents haven't been clear that matches and lighters are adult tools only. Familiarity with fire through everyday activities makes children feel they can handle it. This can result from simply witnessing others using fire or working with others using fire, and inappropriate assignment of responsibility, such as cooking or starting campfires. This is a strong predictor of fire play. Children given responsibilities that require the use of matches or lighters before they are ready (before about age 11) tend to have a false sense of control and overestimate their ability to handle fire.
What can a fire chief do to reduce fires started by juveniles?
Focus on juvenile firesetting as a community issue rather than on individual juvenile firesetting incidents. A child-set fire is not just about the child; it involves the parent and the community. Become familiar with your local, county or regional resources, including social workers, mental-health professionals, and human-service agencies. Be prepared to provide other agencies with both general fire safety information, and with referrals for families when specific intervention is needed. The fact that most children never set another reported fire shows that, to make a significant reduction in the injuries, deaths and damage caused by child-set fires, we must focus on preventing that first fire.
The good news about the contributing factors above is that something can be done about all of them. The key is community education, of both kids and parents. Parents need to know to keep matches and lighters out of sight and reach, set clear rules that these ignition materials are for adults only, and not give fire-related responsibilities to kids younger than 11.
You can leverage your department's resources by treating every response or interaction as an opportunity for education. Whether they're called out for an emergency response or a building inspection, fire service can not only check smoke alarms, but check for fire hazards including matches or lighters left out, talk with parents about setting rules, and encourage families to plan and practice a home fire drill. Finally, track data about child-set fires in your community. Fire departments that can show the extent and consequences of juvenile fire setting are in a better position to get resources for both prevention and intervention.