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Firefighter Arsonists – Stopping the Problem at the Door of the Firehouse

This article explores the reasons or motivations behind firefighters setting fires, and what is missing in the recruitment, hiring, testing and training process that allows these individuals to become members of our profession.

We are all appalled by the recent spate of fires being set by firefighters, most notably reported in the news, volunteer firefighters. In recent news events, we are reading with increasing frequency that our own firefighters are starting fires and in certain instances, citizens have been killed in those fires. An example in the public record:

• When a volunteer firefighter got lost after drinking into Saturday morning at St. Gabriel's Lodge in West Pottsgrove, he got mad and started setting fires along his path, authorities said. When local firefighters arrived to hose down the flames at a neighbor's shed, Charles Sluzenski - who had found his way back to his mother's house - dashed drunkenly forth in full firefighting gear and asked to help.

• A volunteer firefighter was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison Friday for setting a fire that killed a mother and three of her children, an arson that prosecutors said was the firefighter's attempt to look like a hero

• A firefighter with the Lake Township Volunteer Fire Department has been charged with two counts of arson in connection with two March structure fires in Newton County.

• State police on Monday arrested a fourth volunteer firefighter from Schuylkill County in a series of arsons that caused more than $2 million damage. In addition, troopers said two more people would be charged today in connection with the nine fires that were set between Sept. 30 and Jan. 23 in Washington, Wayne, West Brunswick and East Brunswick townships in Schuylkill County.

• A New London (Conn) judge refused to reduce the sentence of a probationary firefighter who torched three houses in Mystic in the summer of 2008 to impress his colleagues. The Judge sentenced the 23-year-old Groton man to 14 years in prison and five years probation. She told him he was lucky he had not killed a firefighter or the people in the two occupied homes he had set afire.

This article explores the reasons or motivations behind firefighters setting fires, and what is missing in the recruitment, hiring, testing and training process that allows these individuals to become members of our profession.

According to the USFA’s National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) data and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), an estimated average of 316,600 intentional fires are reported to fire departments in the United States each year causing injuries to 7,825 firefighters and civilians. In 2006, 10 firefighters died as a result of arson. In addition to needless injury and death, an estimated $1.1 billion in direct property loss occurs annually. These are the numbers for intentionally set fires, which includes arson. The number of pure arson cases is more difficult to track.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) 2008 Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) statistics showed that 14,011 law enforcement agencies reported 62,807 arsons. Arsons involving structures (e.g., residential, storage, public, etc.) accounted for 43.4 percent of the total number of arson offenses. Mobile property (e.g., cars, motorcycles, etc.) was involved in 28.9 percent of arsons, and other types of property (such as crops, timber, fences, etc.) accounted for 27.7 percent of reported arsons.

The last report by the USFA specific to arson fires used numbers gathered in 1997. Arson fires (defined as incendiary/suspicious in NFIRS) comprised almost 16% of all reported fires in 1997 and accounted for more than 554 million or 15 % of all the total estimated dollar loss. Arson is defined by this study as the willful and malicious burning of property. All states have criminal laws pertaining to arson in various degrees of severity.

The criminal act of arson is divided into three elements:

1) There is a burning of property. This must be shown to the court to be actual destruction at least in part not just scorching or sooting.

2) The fire is incendiary in origin. Proof must be established by evidence either through specific forensic findings or by expert testimony that all possible natural or accidental causes have been considered and eliminated.

3) The fire is proved to be started with malice

Even more difficult to track are intentional fire sets, including arson attributed to firefighters. Several agencies track arsons and in a 2003 study by the U.S. Fire Administration found there is no hard data about the prevalence of firefighter arsonists. The difficulty is due in part to a lag time in reporting the event as arson and even longer to determine it was firefighter arson. Arson requires that a person either confesses of is convicted. Only then does it become a statistic; a statistic that agencies are having a difficult time tracking.

A similar investigation by the National Volunteer Fire Council in the early 1990s also struggled to pin down statistics. Fire officials said these arsonists have a disproportionate impact among the country's more than a million firefighters. They erode public trust, firefighter morale and make it harder for volunteer units to raise much-needed funds.

The special report on Firefighter Arson provides two overlapping profiles of a firefighter arsonist as developed by the FBI’s behavior analysis unit and the South Carolina Forestry Commission. Given the propensity of firefighters setting fires in the news the inclusion of the personality characteristics for the two profiles is appropriate and should be used in conjunction with other background and psychological screening.

South Carolina Forestry Commission

 White male, age 17 - 26
 Product of disruptive, harsh, or unstable rearing environment
 Poor relationship with father, overprotective mother
 If married, poor marital adjustment
 Lacking social and interpersonal skills
 Poor occupational adjustment, employed in low-paying jobs
 Fascinated with the fire service and its trappings
 May be facing unusual stress (family, financial, or legal problems)
 Average to above-average intelligence but poor to fair academic performance in school

FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit

 White male, age 17 - 25
 One or both parents missing from home during childhood. If from an intact home, the emotional atmosphere was mixed and unstable.
 Dysfunctional. One of their parents left the home before the child reached age 17. Cold, distant, hostile or aggressive relationship with the natural father.
 Poor marital adjustment. If not married, still living at home with parents.
 Lack of stable interpersonal relationships
 Poor occupational adjustment. Menial laborer, skilled laborer, clerical jobs
 Interested in fire service in the context that it provides an arena for excitement, not for the sake of public service.
 Alcoholism, childhood hyperactivity, homosexuality, depression, borderline personality disorder, and
suicidal tendencies
 Mixed findings on intelligence, but most arsonists have been found to have average to higher intelligence. Poor academic performance.

Source - U.S. Fire Administration/Technical Report Series, 2003

What is interesting about the profiles included above is how closely it resembles the profile of civilian arsonists. Also of note within the profiles provided is the presence of symptoms of mental health disorders and biological based disorders, which can affect any individual, firefighter or civilian. A term often inaccurately associated with fire setting behavior is pyromania. Pyromania is a disorder found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR). Pyromania is characterized by repeated fire setting. Unlike simple arson, however, there appears to be no motive for setting fires other than a fascination with fire. Pyromania is more common in males than females, and is a rare disorder: only perhaps 1% of all those who set fires have this disorder, while the rest have some understandable motive. These patients often delight in watching fires and may regularly follow fire engines. Some may even end up as volunteer firefighters consistent with some of the identified characteristic of the FBI profile.

A diagnosis of this condition requires meeting specific symptom criteria, which most people who set fires don’t meet. Individuals who set fire do so for other reasons such as financial motives; ideological or political convictions (such as terrorist or anarchist political beliefs); anger or revenge; a desire to cover up another crime, attention or recognition, developmental experimentation. Fire setting is also a symptom of mental or biological disorders including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), conduct disorder, anti-social personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, a manic episode, schizophrenia, alcohol and/or drug abuse, dementia or mental retardation.

The function of fire setting behavior within the listed disorders is varied. In some cases the fire setting behaviors function as self soothing; the fire setter is experiencing tension and seeing the flames is soothing or a release of anger or revenge. The arsonist may have problems with impulse control, impaired judgment or substance intoxication in which the fires are set without thought and/or care for the consequences of endangerment and life or property loss. Arson also can be used as a means to gain attention. Attention seeking is often meant to gain attention for acceptance with a peer group or to provide a means for the fire setter to act as a hero. Finally fire setting can be used as a means to communicate a need for some change or as a cry for help.

I have talked to attorneys representing families whose homes were torched by firefighter arsonists. The attorneys stated that through interrogatories and depositions they discovered that the reason the firefighter joined the fire service was to build character and develop a sense of values despite demonstrating a lack of these traits as evidenced by frequent run-ins with the law and/or problems at home. These traits are consistent with FBI’s profile of an arsonist. These traits and other traits consistent with the profile of an arsonist are present before a firefighter candidate is hired. It is the job of the department to identify these individuals in their hiring process.

The fire service is not a solution for families or individuals to help these “problem children” who were directed to the fire service by other family members or friends who are in the fire service. My thought is if you want character development, a stint in the Marine Corps may have better success than the fire service. Meaning no disrespect to our profession and the men and women in our service; we have a job to do and babysitting is not one of them. We must hire individuals with developed character and values already in place.

In a recent article involving a young volunteer firefighter and other firefighter arson cases gathered from a newspaper it was reported that:

 In some ways, Daniel Parsons fit the profile. He was young, white and working a low-end job as a dishwasher. He was a rookie firefighter, joining a volunteer company in New Milford in Susquehanna County only six months earlier. And at Bingham's Restaurant, where Mr. Parsons worked, he was apparently feuding with the other employees. But in this new fire recruit, who passed a background check, Columbia Hose Company Chief Dwayne Conklin did not see an arsonist. "He gave no indication he was capable of this," Chief Conklin said. When the 19-year-old Mr. Parsons was charged Monday with setting the inferno that destroyed the landmark Bingham's and two other businesses, he became the region's latest high-profile firefighter arsonist, police allege.

 Retired Scranton firefighter Thomas Gervasi was accused of torching apartments and a car he owned for insurance money in 2008.

 Benjamin Christensen, a Whites Crossing firefighter, is serving 10 to 20 years in state prison for setting seven Upvalley fires that caused $3 million in damage starting in 2007.

 Firefighters who start fires, and why they do it, have long been part of an American obsession with true crime. But within the city departments and small-town companies that these arsonists betray, the subject is almost taboo. Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner Edward Mann said anyone who commits arson should have the book thrown at them. "But if you're a firefighter and you're convicted of arson, you ought to have the entire damn bookcase thrown at you," he said.

Source - The Scranton Times Tribune; Jeremy G. Burton, April 17, 2010

The firefighter arsonists whose stories have been reported in the news and mentioned above and at the beginning of this article described reasons for fire setting events out of anger, for revenge, for monetary gain, poor judgment while under the influence of alcohol and for attention, to be a hero. This does not necessarily mean that these individuals have a mental or biological disorder. However the reasons stated are symptoms of mental and biological disorders and can be screened for with some success.

Many departments utilize a comprehensive screening process to include a background check, and psychological assessment, while other departments do only a cursory check. Utilization of a comprehensive hiring practice can provide the best people for your fire department.

Best Practices

This article is not about making every fire officer a psychologist but we had better become aware of the problem firefighter arsonists has created for our industry and to seek tight or tighter controls in pre-screening candidates who wish to be either a volunteer of career firefighter.

Hiring a firefighter is a complicated process. Volunteer fire departments may have greater difficulty because of recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters. However, based on these statistics of firefighter caused arson and other problems arising from troubled firefighters, we need to look beyond the candidate who is breathing and has a pulse and provide a comprehensive approach to how we recruit, hire and retain our volunteer and career firefighters.

Recruitment - The process hiring starts with active and community wide recruitment of potential candidates. There are a number of published ways to attract qualified men and women in to our profession. It is imperative that during recruitment the expectations of the jobs are posted. These expectations must go beyond the obvious and include the requirements for strong work ethic, honesty, compassion, even tempered and commitment to public service. Also included in the job description is the honest statement about the actual call volume and types of calls as well as the amount of downtime and the potential for boredom. The fire service must take some ownership of the myth of the excitement of being a firefighter and “slaying the dragon”.

Written Application - The next step is a formal written application process. These need to be comprehensive enough for your department to get a sense of the candidate’s background, prior or current work history and other pertinent facts related to this candidate. Your written application cannot be discriminatory and needs to remain gender and race neutral; you can ask birthdates if you have a minimum age requirement. You need to ask if they have a criminal or felony background or any driving infractions. You also need to seek permission to do a background check and there should be a section on the application that indicates that the organization will do a background check and they need to sign a release. Do not make a hiring decision on their statement on the application -you need to actually follow up with a comprehensive background check. These cost a few dollars but are well worth the effort. The background check should be done soon in the hiring process. These weed out many candidates but occasionally one candidate with a questionable background slips through – it depends on the screening process and those who are completing that task.

Written Evaluation - After screening the applications, the next phase is a written evaluation of their ability to read, write, comprehend simple information, do simple math and follow directions. There are hundreds of validated tests on the market and you can subscribe to agencies to provide written evaluations. Many times organizations will create their own written that have been found to discriminate against certain ethnic groups or genders and fire departments have found themselves on the wrong end of a lawsuit as the test discriminated against certain groups. The test should be a combination of multiple choice and written component. The reasons for that are in your recruit training academy, those candidates are going to have to read and comprehend a lot of technical information and write out reports and other documentation. If they cannot read and write then is there room for them in your organization? If you have someone with a validated reading disability and they notify you of that disability prior to taking the written exam, the department is required to provide certain accommodations to include a reader and a longer time frame to accommodate their reading disability. You can score these written evaluations or use a pass fail system.

Physical Ability Test - After the candidate passes the written, they should undertake a physical ability test that is job related. You are not looking for someone, “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and can jump buildings in a single bound”, but someone who has the basic physical ability to successfully to the job. I recommend CPAT as the basis as it is a valid test – a little pricy but if you gather your neighboring departments, this is an achievable testing standard. This test should be pass fail. I strongly urge you not to create your own physical ability test as they usually end up discriminating against women and individuals who are vertically challenged and others as the test is usually strength based and has been classified in many cases as discrimination against a certain protected class.

Psychological Evaluation - After your candidates successfully pass the written, I STRONGLY RECOMMEND a psychological evaluation by a qualified psychologist. Find someone in your community that understands what firefighters do for a living and for the community in their role as a firefighter. There are several very specific tests available that will provide the department with the most comprehensive profile of that candidate’s psychological makeup. The psychological makeup highlights the characteristics and behaviors that are present in individuals that set fires or participate in other risky behaviors. Candidates that are considered either moderate or high risk by the psychologist must not be allowed to be a part of your department. This testing is highly confidential and information must pass only between the psychologist and the Fire Chief for the hiring decisions. It’s OK to say no to some candidates who fail the psychological process. It is better to spend a few bucks (about $250 to $400.00 per candidate) than to spend millions in claims when they begin to start fires and other egregious behavior affecting your department.

Medical Evaluation - Some departments will perform the medical physical before the psychological which is not a real issue of but to have your candidates go through a medical physical is an extremely important phase in this process. As you can see statistically, over 45% of the firefighters who die, die from cardiac arrest and volunteers are at the head of this statistic. You can pick up a lot of information from the physician about detectible and correctible disease, like heart disease, hypertension and other medical conditions on your firefighter candidates. This critical medical information is generally kept between the firefighter candidate and the physician but the decision to retain the candidate as a firefighter is the decision of the Fire Chief. The physician should indicate that the candidate is physically capable of doing the job. If there are treatable medical conditions that would endanger candidate at some point , the candidate needs to get them resolved and possibly come back later for hiring. I also suggest that your organization retains the services of a physician who knows what you do as a living and as a volunteer firefighter. There are many standards available for the physician to reference when performing the evaluation like NFPA 1500, 1582 and 1583. There are many more State standards and if you know what they are, make those available to your physician.

Recruit Academy - Now your candidates have made it through the screening process and they are ready for recruit academy. There are many ways to conduct a recruit academy. My goal here is not to describe a recruit academy, but this is the best time to observe the ability of your volunteer firefighters to grasp the skills and knowledge of firefighting. This is also a good time to evaluate their personality, particularly their ability to problem solve, handle frustration and interact with other people, as well as any other issues that may become problems in the future. A good evaluation system can help your Training Officers assist the candidates in performance or to weed out those not grasping the concepts or who become problematic by not following orders, getting upset when frustrated, difficulty being a team player and other basic bad behavior that we do not want in our fire service.

Probationary Period - After academy and throughout the firefighter’s time with the department there needs to be regular evaluations of their performance and behavior. You also need to look at behavior outside of the department as in many small and large communities, firefighter behavior is becoming increasingly scrutinized by the public. If you have a firefighter with a drug or alcohol problems, issues with domestic violence, those committing arson or other egregious behavior, a regular performance evaluation is a good tool to recognize those bad behaviors and immediately put into place corrective actions to either: save the firefighter; save the community or make a decision that this individual is not good for your organization. A strong consideration should be to involve a psychologist if behavioral issues cause concern. Problem behaviors are not always clear in cause and effect. The behaviors that may warrant a dismissal may be a sign that the firefighter may be burned out, depressed, suffering from PTSD and needs intervention from a psychologist. Performance evaluations are extremely important and are not a pencil whipping exercise. Evaluations do not have to unnecessarily lengthy, but can be short and concise. Do some research; there are many examples of performance evaluations on the market.

Organizational Education - To put this all together for a successful outcome, it is imperative that there is organizational education and strong supervisor oversight of the problems facing the departments today. Nothing will kill support for a department if your firefighters are convicted of committing arson, drunk driving, committing domestic violence, selling drugs, molesting children, drinking on duty and other egregious actions. It is imperative that all of your firefighters are “supervisory” qualified and know the “warning signs” that a firefighter is heading down a destructive path. It is also important that they know that they can “report” a problem firefighter without repercussions and that there is help for the problem firefighter.

Finally, the administration needs to have strong and consistently enforced policies in place for resolving departmental problems, and to have the strength to cut a firefighter loose if they cannot be counseled, or disciplined to follow the organizational goals and expectations. In other words the buck stops at the fire chief and the fire chief needs to make those hard decisions.

Source - First published in Fire Engineering July 2010 by authors (

By M2 Resource Group, Inc
EMS & Fire Subject Matter Expert Witness; Litigation Support; Psychological Testing & Counseling
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: John K. Murphy and Beth L. Murphy
John K. Murphy, JD, MS, PA-C, EFO, FACC retired as a Deputy Fire Chief after 32 years of career service; is a practicing attorney, whose focus is on employment practices liability, training safety, employment policy and practices, forensic evaluation on fire operations, internal investigations and consulting on risk management for private and public entities.

Beth L. Murphy, MA, LMHC retired as a firefighter/EMT after 12 years of service to pursue and complete her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. She is a practicing clinician with a focus on workplace stress, PTSD, cancer survivors and TBI. Her population focus is on police and fire agencies, as well as military personnel.

Copyright M2 Resource Group, Inc

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

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