Oct. 28--SCHENECTADY -- The 8-year-old boy knew the dangers of fire, but was still curious about what it could do to the metal springs on his bed.
Fire is "really bad. It burns anything, except I don't know if it burns metal or metal springs; that's why I did it," he admitted in response to questions from a city police investigator hours after the raging blaze on July 7, 2010, that killed his 2-year-old sister and 65-year-old grandmother.
A video recording of the interview by Detective Tony Brown hours after the conflagration was recently played during a juvenile fire-setter intervention workshop.
"I was trying to put the fire out by myself, except I couldn't," the boy said in between sniffles caused by soot still lodged in his nose. "It didn't work, and I left it alone so the firefighters could take care of it."
The boy later admitted during the interview that he had previously set a piece of paper on fire and started another fire when the family lived at a different place in Schenectady. He was not charged with a crime.
"If somebody had identified these fires earlier, maybe we wouldn't have had these fatalities," Schenectady Fire Chief Michael Della Rocco told the crowd at Schenectady County Community College.
Officials say the case underscores a trend across the state of more children and teenagers playing with fire, sometimes with deadly consequences.
Local and state fire officials are teaming up with professional experts and employing more aggressive outreach efforts to reach young children in schools and their parents, especially during Fire Prevention Awareness month in October.
"We're taking a very proactive approach to that; not only to the children, but also to the parents ... one piece that's difficult for us to do anything about is the lack of parental supervision," Della Rocco said.
William McGovern Jr., a fire investigator with the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services in Albany and one of the speakers at the Schenectady workshop, said the lack of fire safety education and adequate supervision of youngsters along with ease of access to matches and lighters often are reasons the problem flourishes.
"It is a growing problem due to the changing of society -- more parents working and less supervision -- and it's also something we are addressing, and we are seeing more of it now," said Schenectady Fire Capt. Doug Faulisi. Faulisi, along with Deputy Chief Scott Doherty and Lt. T.J. Dercole, make up the department's three-member fire prevention unit that runs the juvenile fire-setters prevention program.
The message to children and parents is that fire is a tool, not a toy, Faulisi said. The firefighter said a child's first exposure to fire is often fun and positive, including lighting candles on a birthday cake or lighting a fireplace. Statewide, firefighters so far this year answered 156 calls for a minor setting a fire, McGovern said, which is already above the yearly average. Since 2008, that figure is 816, he added.
McGovern cautioned that those figures are just the tip of the iceberg since parents, fearing their child will get in trouble, often remain silent. One major study on the issue revealed that only 1 in 9 incidents of juvenile fire setting is ever reported to authorities, McGovern said.
In New York, a person 16 years of age and older can be charged as an adult, while an individual 15 and under can be charged as a juvenile, fire officials said. In Schenectady, the department's youth aid bureau, which investigates fires involving youngsters, has discretion on filing criminal charges, authorities said.
Dercole, the Schenectady firefighter, said parents are often dismayed to learn that their child played with fire before they got caught.
The firefighters cite another case in Schenectady of a 10-year-old boy who ignited a fire with a lighter in an upstairs bedroom in August, extensively damaging his family's Parkwood Boulevard home. The boy's father was startled when his son admitted setting other fires, added Dercole.