Juvenile Fire Setters Program

In 1993, the Rahway Fire Department entered into a program which was designed to deal with a fast growing trend of juvenile firesetting and fireplay.  This was in cooperation with the Union County Firewatch Program.  Local activities are under the jurisdiction of the Fire Prevention Bureau of the City of Rahway.  At the present time two inspectors are assigned to this program with the assistance of the Police-Juvenile Bureau when required.

National statistics reveal that as much as sixty to seventy-five percent of all fires are initiated by children – children who are asking for help.  The New Jersey Bureau of Fire Safety submitted a report to the Governor several years ago which stated, “juvenile arson and incidents of firesetting by juveniles without criminal intention pose a serious threat to the health and safety of our citizenry and cause substantial financial losses to homes, businesses and communities, thereby making juvenile firesetting a serious social and economic problem that must be addressed on a priority basis”.

During the last couple of years, there has been a collaborative effort by fire service personnel, law enforcement agencies, educators, the courts and mental health professionals to establish a firm financial base for the program to better help the children who set fires.  Rahway Fire Department personnel have been involved in this effort in a meaningful way.

About the youthful firesetter

Very young children are attracted to fire and to firesetting.  Curiosity about fire is quite normal in two to seven year olds.  Children often show this interest when they light small fires or play with matches, lighters or candles.  Children are great imitators and mimic adults who light cigarettes, candles and fireplaces.

Most children under seven do not understand fire’s destructive consequences.  To them, fire is bright, warm and exciting.  Curious firesetters are usually boys and usually do not collect firesetting tools (lighters, matches, etc.).  They set fire fairly close to home.  Curious firesetters who see a fire growing beyond their control will often try to extinguish the blaze or run for help.

In contrast to the curious firesetter, other youngsters light fires because of emotional/mental disturbances ranging from mild to severe.  These children and their families may need counseling to stop the firesetting behavior.

Firesetting Behavior

There are a number of reasons for firesetting behavior in children.  The reason or motivation for the behavior often indicates the type of intervention-education or referral for therapy – which would be most appropriate.

Curiosity firesetting refers to a child experimenting with fire because he is interested in exploring the environment.  He wishes to know how fire feels, how it looks, how hot it is, how it burns, what it does.

This child can usually be helped by educational intervention by fire service personnel.

Fires may also be started accidentally because of poor judgement.  The child who causes a fire by accident can often be helped by educational intervention.  However, accident proneness – a continuous pattern of accidents – may indicate a more serious problem and require professional assistance.

Firesetting behavior may also be caused by peer pressure, a situation in which peers bully or coerce the child into firesetting or may be the result of a major crisis or trauma in the child’s life such s moves, death or divorce.

Other types of firesetting reflect more serious emotional/mental disturbances and require the services of mental health professionals.

When to be Concerned about Mood

The child’s mood (emotional state) can also indicate the seriousness of the child’s firesetting behavior.  Mood is usually noticeable and is usually appropriate to given situation.  A child brought into a fire station for a “talk” would be expected to be fearful, possibly anxious or depressed.  These moods would be appropriate for the situation.  We should be concerned about an overly depressed, anxious or fearful child.  Overconfidence and/or happiness in this situation would also be inappropriate and therefore give us cause to be concerned.

The fire interviewer’s own intuition can determine the appropriateness of the child’s mood.  Asking the child and the parents about the child’s mood is quite acceptable.   Beware of the child who is overly moody or has large and variable mood swings.

When to be Concerned about Thoughts

Normality of a child’s thoughts, fantasies and dreams is difficult to determine.  Thoughts fantasies and dreams are not observable and vary greatly.  Violent, destructive, sadistic or masochistic thoughts (when continual or reoccurring) are indications of poor adjustment.  Reoccurring thoughts and fantasies may be determined by asking the child his thoughts (e.g., “Do some thoughts or daydreams continually run through your head?”).  Ask parents if the child is preoccupied about recent dreams or nightmares.

Traits Commonly Found in Children Who Set Fires

 Behavioral, environmental or physical difficulties are traits commonly found in the firesetter under seven years of age.  The following list of traits may signal firesetter:

Poor relationship with other children:
Frequent jealousy

  • Frequent breaking of other children’s toys
  • Frequent fighting
  • Refusal to play with other children

Frequently exhibits the following behavior:

  • Impulsiveness – acting before thinking
  • Showing off
  • Stealing
  • Running away from home or school
  • Cruelty to small children
  • Cruelty to animals
  • Impatience
  • Temper tantrums
  • Nightmares
  • Enuresis (day or night wetting)
  • Extreme mood changes – happy to angry
  • Feeding disorders
  • Accident proneness

Disrupted parental or home structure:

  • Parent(s) divorced, separated or deceased
  • Lives with relative other than parents
  • Lives in a foster home
  • Hospitalized for an extended period

Recent change in family structure:

  • New baby
  • Death of relative
  • Parents recently divorced, separated
  • New parent partner

Poor apparent relationship between mother and/or father and child:

  • Parent(s) seem hostile toward child
  • Parent(s) criticize child constantly or indicate how bad, dumb, ugly or unwanted child is
  • Lack of true parental affection
  • Lack of parental attention and supervision

Physically abused by parent(s) or guardian:

  • Beaten
  • Burned
  • Starved
  • Sexually abused
  • Unused punishment such as confinement to a small space, such as a closet

Over-burdened parent
Physical ailment(s):

  • Obvious physical defect
  • Frequent stomachaches
  • Allergies

Juvenile firesetters can be identified to fire inspectors by a number of means including:

  • School Officials
  • Parents
  • Social Workers
  • Police Department
  • Firefighters with whom he or she has come into contact with the juvenile firesetter intervention program interviews will usually place the child within one of three levels depending on the level of concern and psychological profiles.  The problem can be dealt with a simple educational approach or in some cases, require the services of a mental health professional.

There appears to be four separate and distinct types of firesetters with which we have become involved since the inception of this program:


  • The majority of these types are between 2 and 7 years of age
  • They imitate adults that light cigarettes, candles, etc….
  • It is normal for them to have curiosity with matches of fire in general but they must be taught proper use of fire and how destructive a force it can be.


 Generally a child from 2 to teenage which is crying out for help

  • Some signs to watch for would be: plays alone, inability to form close relationships, shyness, impulsive fighting with siblings or peers, extreme mood swings, bedwetting, stuttering, hyperactivity, aggressive behavior.
  • Some of these children express anger by hurting themselves or destroying their own toys
  • A large majority of these children have problems at school
  • This could be a response to abuse or neglect
  • They rarely come from a happy home situation
  • Setting fires in a way to act out their anger


  • Usually in their early teens with a history of suspicious fires
  • Usually an act of vandalism for pure enjoyment or destroying property
  • Targets for their arsons are usually abandoned buildings, open fields or schools
  • Fires can be large, premeditated and sophisticated
  • Experts say that these delinquent firesetters have a history of lying, stealing, truancy and possible substance abuse


  • Very small percentage of firesetters
  • All ages are represented but all have behavior problems
  • Most of the severely disturbed firesetters are in mental or correctional institutions
  • Their treatment process is complicated, lengthy and expensive with no easy solutions


The program consists of a meeting with the Juvenile, his or her parents and the Fire Inspector, who has been trained to counsel young people from the ages of 4 through 18.  This meeting generally takes place in the Fire Prevention Office, after the parents have been advised of the parameters of the program.  The Juvenile receives approximately one hour of counseling with regards to Fire Safety and the dangers that are involved with setting fires.  After the counseling session, he or she is then given an essay to write or a speech to be presented to his school on a pre-determined subject relevant to his or her situation.