BALTIMORE – In any given week, there are headlines across the country about firefighters setting fires.
But, the problem is not a new one.
The issue dates back to at least the early 1800s, Montgomery Township, Pa. Fire Chief Bill Wiegman told attendees at Firehouse Expo recently.
Just how many fires are being set by those who don gear to extinguish them is not really known as there is no national data collection system, the chief said.
“We need a better source for collecting data,” Wiegman said, adding that until that occurs, the magnitude of the problem still remains a mystery.
Among the motives for firefighter arsons include vandalism, excitement, revenge, concealment, profit and extremism. The chief said they also want to be viewed as a hero for helping extinguish the fire.
“Once they start,” he said. “It’s difficult to stop them. There’s an inner drive or impulse that causes a person to do something or act in a certain way…”
The first fires usually start in brush, grass or mulch, but eventually graduate to vehicles and structures.
“If you all of a sudden see an increase in nuisance fires like brush and grass, you should start asking questions…”
He continued: “Are the dynamics of the fire service allowing fire-setting behavior to manifest?”
Studies show that most firefighter arsonists are young, and fairly new members of the department. Typically, the incidents begin about two years after they join and learn about fire behavior.
Wiegman added that sharing of information on potential member fire-setters is poor. And, he said it’s imperative that officers speak up should they suspect something. "Start taking photos of people who are showing up at your fires. It's not always the buffs..."
It’s essential, the chief said, that every department screen every person who signs an application.
“Make sure there is a criminal background check, and call their previous chiefs. Also, ask them to sign a waiver granting consent to obtain confidential information.”
But, the chief encouraged them to go beyond that to ensure that a fire-setter was not being welcomed into their ranks.
“Provide a positive mentor, and tell them about the consequences of setting fires…”