The bulk of research on firesetting behaviour to date has come from the USA. Here, there is agreement that both individual and environmental factors must be examined simultaneously. Individual characteristics are determined by social and cognitive experiences, and entail values, self-expectations, beliefs and orientations toward self and others1. Environmental circumstances include supports, controls, models and the expectations of others. Exploration of these factors, and their relation to firesetting, can help workers within the field to understand motivations and risk levels, which will assist in the prevention and treatment of firesetters.
Firesetting has been found to be closely related to antisocial behaviours2. Research shows that firesetters tend to exhibit conduct problems, such as disobedience, aggressiveness and impulsivity3. Other research found that firesetters experience anger and resentment over parental rejection, with such feelings being expressed largely through the use of fire4. Firesetting may occur at the end of the spectrum of antisocial symptomology, which progresses from more frequent, overt problem behaviours, such as disobedience, to less frequent, covert behaviours, such as lying, stealing and vandalism5. Adolescent firesetters exhibit higher levels of hostility and aggression, compared with those who set fires at other ages6.
Motivations for firesetting can range in severity and desired outcome, from curiosity, boredom or attention seeking, to sexual enjoyment, revenge, feelings of power and control, or destruction. Other motivations behind arson include to conceal evidence, to set vehicle fires, insurance fraud, political purposes or re-housing.
The analysis of all current research identifies seven categories of firesetters:
Curiosity firesetters are typically young children (3-6 years) who engage in firesetting as experimentation. When asked why they started a fire, they tend to respond that they did so in desire to watch a flame. Hyperactivity or attention deficit disorder is the traditional early childhood diagnosis for most firesetting in children age 7 years and below. This type of firesetter often shows remorse after the fire7 and tends not to understand the consequences of their behaviour.
The curious firesetter will not have any cognitive deficits, since their full cognitive capabilities are not fully developed because they are still young and unaware of the dangers. If this behaviour is not responded to, there is a danger that the child will come to view his behaviour as an acceptable play activity, or as a way of defying parental authority.
Accidental firesetters are usually children under the age of 11 years, although this category may also include teenagers engaging in experimental firesetting or those exploring what fire can do. Young adult or adult carelessness may fall into this group. Accidental firesetting is not intended to cause havoc and, for the most part, is not the result of neglectful or abusive home environmental8.
‘Cry for help’ firesetter
The ‘cry for help’ firesetter often occurs within the diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, oppositional defiant disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder. This group is defined as those – generally children or adolescents – who consciously or subconsciously wish to bring attention to an internal dysfunction (depression) or to interpersonal dysfunction (abuse at home, witnessing violence, parental drug, or alcohol abuse, neglect).
This group is not thought to want to cause harm or damage. Assessments show that most ‘cry for help’ firesetters have been physically, emotionally or sexually abused and use fire to release anger.
A subgroup of ‘cry for help’ firesetters is those who set fires in order to be seen as would-be heroes, seeking the attention of peers or the community in order to discover or help put out the fires that they have started.
The delinquent type usually includes youths between the ages of 11 to 17 years. Typically, their firesetting is part of a larger constellation of aggression and other conduct disorders. There may also be involvement in vandalism and other aggressive crimes, most commonly setting fire to abandoned or stolen vehicles. This type of firesetter has little empathy for others and a poorly developed conscience.
Environmental factors that bring about a delinquent firesetter include: chaotic family life; harsh, erratic, inconsistent parental control; experience of care/custody; poor relations with family; pro-criminal peers and family; experiencing violence; underachievement; exclusion from school; substance abuse; and lack of positive opportunities. These factors, combined with cognitive deficits, such as impulsivity, poor problem solving skills, lack of empathy, social skills deficits and an inability to think of consequences, will exacerbate the problematic behaviour. The firesetters in this group will rarely have significant friendships, just a group of peers whom they want to impress.
Severely disturbed firesetter
The severely disturbed firesetter includes youths and adults who are paranoid or psychotic, and for whom the fixation with fire may be a factor in the development of a mental disorder. These people will find positive sensory reinforcement from the sensations that the fire provides for them, thus they will repeatedly light fires to fulfil their desire to experience those sensations.
The history of a severely disturbed firesetter often suggests an early fixation with fire, parental dysfunction and social neglect. Severely disturbed firesetters are diagnosed by a variety of individual pathologies, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder, conduct disorder and schizophrenia9,10. A subgroup of this type of firesetter is pyromaniacs, who are mentally ill and usually find sexual sensory reinforcement from the fires they set. Also, some severe firesetters engage in self-harm, using fire to harm or kill themselves11.
Cognitively impaired firesetter
This group includes those who are mentally impaired. They have learning disabilities brought on by some organic brain dysfunction, by foetal alcohol syndrome, or by drugs taken by their mother during pregnancy. These kinds of firesetters tend to avoid intentional harm but lack acceptable judgment of consequences.
A study of mentally impaired arsonists12 found that, when compared with other types of firesetters, they did not have a history of deviancy, legal offences or other forms of law-breaking related to vandalism. However, the research did find that mentally challenged firesetters have a higher rate of recidivism that non-mentally challenged firesetters.
Those sociocultural types who set fires are typically in the midst of civil unrest and are enraged or enticed by the activity of others and set fires to call attention to the righteousness of their cause. This is an activity mainly carried out by adults as arson-for-profit activities (insurance fraud, re-housing).
A variety of different characteristics, behaviours and cognitions can define different types of firesetters and their behaviour will differ as a result of both individual and environmental circumstances. Gender issues have been sparsely researched; the majority of firesetters are male. This is an area in need of further study – are female motivations for firesetting different to male motivations?
When working with firesetters to alleviate the behaviour, we need to be aware of what type of firesetter they are. If a young person is setting fires alone or appears to be the ring leader in a group of people involved in fire-related offences (not vehicle fires), it needs to be established whether the motivation is anger, frustration, or revenge, rather than thrill seeking through boredom. Extreme punitive measures used with an angry firesetter will lead to more fires being set.
Aside from the mental health issues of a severe firesetter, there is a general lack of certain cognitive abilities which lead people, mainly youngsters, to set fires. By working with these young people, the fire service can provide a combination of fire education and cognitive behavioural intervention – including developing problem-solving skills, alternative thinking skills, ability to empathise, consequential thinking and impulsivity – to help address the problem. A cognitive behavioural programme will attempt to enhance each of these specific thinking skills using a variety of carefully designed exercises and games.
By Laura Thomas, FIS Manager with South Wales Fire and Rescue Service