Published: November 4, 2013
Firefighters agree that every community has a youth arson problem and Colorado Springs is no exception.
Colorado Springs Fire Department investigators reported 39 arson cases involving juveniles in 2012, of which 12 resulted in arrests and $563,718 in property loss. That's a slight decrease from 2011, when 48 fires were set by minors, leading to 15 arrests.
The numbers for this year have not been tallied, but the fire department's youth arson prevention and intervention program, FireFactor, had received 142 referrals through mid-October to help kids who have been involved in fire-setting incidents or who could be at risk of such behavior.
"It's difficult to gauge if the problem has grown and that's why we keep getting referrals, or if we are getting the referrals because we've done a great job about educating the public and they know FireFactor is available," said Jane Hunter Zook, CSPD's fire and life safety educator.
Since the mid-1990s, the department has had a program to address fire-setting tendencies in minors. It was revised and rebranded in October 2010 as FireFactor. It targets prevention and intervention and also educates and counsels parents.
"FireFactor is a dynamic, media-rich program that includes an assessment of each child referred," Hunter Zook said. "That assessment is followed up with a three-hour group class led by fire department staff and an adult burn survivor."
Through FireFactor, Hunter Zook and her team target sixth grade-age children, because studies show kids between 10 and 14 years of age are most likely to engage in fire misuse.
The team goes to Colorado Springs middle schools and in the past three years 59 percent of children have admitted to misusing fire at least once - 15 percent of those have done so repeatedly.
During one of Hunter Zook's FireFactor presentations at Sabin Middle School last week, 27 out of 60 sixth-graders admitted to having misused fire on one or more occasions.
Since launching youth programs in 1995, the department has tried to keep up with social and technological factors that contribute to risky behavior, such as social media.
"YouTube and Facebook are two huge sources of information for these kids, because there are so many videos and postings of other children setting things on fire and they get such validation from their peers," spokeswoman Sunny Smaldino said.
Program coordinators have revised language, too.
"Playing with fire" is an expression Hunter Zook doesn't want anyone to use. "Misuse of fire," she said, indicates that a fire-setting child knows the difference between right and wrong.
"Saying that a child was 'playing with fire' presumes that it was a game, it removes responsibility and accountability from what they've done or thinking about doing," she said. "The expression 'misuse of fire' indicated that the fire-setter knew the difference between right and wrong, and they can make better and wiser decisions."
Through Jan. 31, 2014, FireFactor will give its hour-long presentation to hundreds of sixth-graders in an effort to show them the devastating power of fire.
"Most kids don't realize that in the state of Colorado, you can be charged with a felony as young as 10 years old," Smaldino said. "Some kid will play with fireworks, set a 300-acre grass fire, and that's on their record forever."
Zook uses YouTube videos, movie clips, animations and survey clickers to engage the children.
Sabin students were captivated by videos and photos that delved into fire safety, the differences between fantasy and reality, and making wise decisions. In an excerpt of a YouTube video, kids watched as a night club was quickly engulfed in flames in Rhode Island in 2003, eventually killing 100 people and injuring 230. Hunter Zook showed them a behind-the-scenes take of the filming of "Catching Fire," a movie where a special effects team set a forest on fire, then put the flames out in seconds. When asked if they thought Hollywood and popular culture affected their attitudes on fire, more than three-quarters of the children answered that it did.
In some instances, referrals are made for a child to receive additional help through mental health resources if deemed necessary for crisis, delinquent or pathological fire-setting tendencies. Since 2010, the rate of recidivism for participants in the program has been less than one percent.
FireFactor's principal aim is to show children and their families that the fire misuse behavior can be corrected. Labeling a child because they set a fire, in the coordinator's opinion, is wrong.
"One of the biggest misconceptions is to call someone a 'pyromaniac,' which is just not accurate," Hunter Zook said. "True pyromaniacs make up less than one percent of the population. It's a true mental disorder whereby someone cannot control their desire to burn something and watch human life and property be destroyed. I've been assessing these children for over seven years, and I've seen maybe one who could fit that description."