How would you say it? Fire or FIRE! Either way it is expressed, it’s one of earth’s natural elements like water or air that can be both deadly and yet necessary, for nature and our own creature comfort survival. The pungent odor of smoke usually foretells the bivalent nature of how we humans view the wanted or unwanted flickers of flame. It’s a welcome sight or a frightening call to alarm that in some cases can be twistedly delicious in a criminal mind.

We use fire every day in some form, but its use and fascination means different things to different people and in the hands of youngsters, it can become dangerous and lethal play. At a young age, kids may not be aware of the depth of respect required around fire, but what they do have, according to Rolla Fire and Rescue Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Breen, is a curiosity towards it, and that’s the scary part. It’s this very nature that Rolla Fire and Rescue have a vested interest in educating children about fire, like they do every October during Fire Prevention Week. It’s also the reason the fire department has developed a program called the Juvenile Fire-Starter Program (JFSP), designed for kids that may have problems that manifest into chronic fire-setting.

“We do a lot of public education with kids,” said the Assistant Chief, who is also the coordinator and trainer of the JFSP. “From a fire department perspective, the focus is not to tell kids that fire is bad. What’s the first thing they do if you say ‘Don’t do that?’ (pause)—so we try to teach them that fire is a tool.”
Breen says we shouldn’t hide from talking about fire with kids—we should teach them about it.
He tries to get kids to think about all the ways fire can be used to help us, such as within the internal combustion engine to help make a car mobile, a gas range top that cooks our food or a hot water heater that provides us with a hot water shower.
“We don’t want them to think fire is a bad thing—we want them to think fire is a dangerous thing they should respect,” he says. “We don’t want to scare them away, or leave them with that curiosity, because a lot of juvenile fire-setters are doing it out of curiosity.”

“The need and the reason for the [JFSP] program is just that—it’s natural—kids are going to be curious,” said Breen.
He noted that over 50% of all fires are set by juveniles, within the five to nine age-group. 90 percent of those juvenile fire-setters are boys. The curiosity starts between the ages of two and seven. Whether it’s birthday candles on a cake, 4th of July sparklers or the comforting crackle of fire in a fireplace, Breen says the fascination with fire is re-enforced in day-to-day life events.

To help parents and their children, the fire department has joined a coalition in cooperation with the Missouri Division of Fire Safety and the National Association of Fire Marshals. It’s called the Missouri Youth Fire Safety Coalition Intervention Program. It’s the organizational structure and professional contact list that gave birth to the fire department’s JFSP program. Realizing that fire starting may be the result of social dysfunction created from outside influences such as family problems or child abuse, the program is designed as a series of steps that include documentation, evaluation and education. According to Assistant Chief Breen, the program should involve the parents and depending on the situation, could enlist the help of school counselors and mental health professionals.
“We have had parents contact us saying, ‘My child is curious of fire,’” said Rolla Fire and Rescue Chief Ron Smith. “[They’ll say] I’ve seen my child doing this and it has caused me to pause. How do I proceed? How do we help the child understand the curiosity of fire?”
Chief Smith says there is a fear of discussion about it from parents because they don’t know where to go next. Plus, they don’t want their child labeled as a potential fire bug.

He explains it is important to direct the child in a safe manner, to help them understand what it means to be curious about fire. He says some parents are looking for the right approach, so they come to the fire station looking for answers. The solution might be the JFSP.  Taking the course, which can last up to eight-weeks, may be voluntary or it may be court-ordered. According to Breen, most of the kids that wind up in the program that follow it through to the end are court-ordered.
“Unless the parents are being forced, they’d rather hide from the problem or simply don’t care,” he notes.

The process starts with interviews with the child and the child’s parents. If there are siblings, Breen says he likes to interview them as well to see if there might be problems coming in the future. There is a set of questions that are asked, tied to numerical values, that will determine whether the problem can be handled internally or if need arises to refer them to a mental health professional.
“I try to work within my scope,” said Breen. “I’m not a therapist, I’m a firefighter.”
Program trainer Breen says JFSP isn’t a punishment program.
“If it’s court-ordered, it’s to come here and be educated,” he adds.
The reasons for juvenile fire-setting are many and Breen says the easiest one to overcome is simple curiosity. The tougher challenges involve fire-setters with scores to settle or those with family attention deficits.
“When the kids get to be 15 to 16 years-old, it’s really hard for me to be able to reach them—to be effective towards some kind of change,” he said.
At this age, Breen said, fire-setting is just criminal behavior or a cry for help. “It’s rare that they are just malicious—that they want to burn things,” he explained.

Assistant Chief Breen says the Rolla program takes in kids from many south-central Missouri counties because Springfield, Joplin, Jefferson City and a couple fire stations near St. Louis are the only municipalities that offer the program.
“I work with other fire departments and I work with other agencies that refer people to us for this program,” he said.
He may have three or four kids in the program during the year or none, but he cautions the numbers can be misleading.
“The need is definitely there, particularly with the large area we are working,” he clarified. “There should be 10 or more per year.”
Again, he recounts the struggles between parents and children where dysfunction is part of the equation, along with neglect or just simple avoidance of a problem. At this point, all he can truly count on are the court-ordered cases that come down the county judicial channel after the fact, where all that’s left are the ashes, or worse.
“That’s why this program is so important,” Breen said. We have an opportunity to help somebody before they get to that point.”