This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.
This paper will explore the particular field of arson. Most people agree that arson is a problem but are unaware of how large of a problem it truly is. Facts and statistics with regards to the crime of arson will be compiled and analyzed to show this. Scholarly journals will read, analyzed, and used to create one paper which spans this broad field. Profiles of arsonists along with their motives for committing this crime will be studied and analyzed. The field of juvenile firesetting will be studied at length along with the theories for why they commit the crime of arson. Finally, this paper will look to the future of arson research, specifically the new ATF Fire Research Laboratory and how this will impact how we deal with arson in the future.
Introduction and Overview
People have always been fascinated by fire. Many years ago, fire was necessary for survival. Most young children have played with matches or lighters to satisfy their curiosity. Even as adults, we put fireplaces in our homes so we can sit in front of them on a cold night or we use bonfires as an excuse to spend time with friends and family while enjoying adult beverages. But what happens when an individual's curiosity of fire turns into a dangerous obsession?
Arson is a legal term which refers to any fire of an incendiary or suspicious origin as defined by the U.S. Fire Administration (2001). There are many different people who commit this felony in the United States and for a variety of different reasons. But what drives an individual to purposely and intentionally damage a public building by means of fire starting? It may be for a variety of reasons, many which are known and have been studied to other unproven theories. And what types of people frequently commit this crime?
Arson is a crime which is frequently committed yet when an individual is asked about how widespread they believe the problem is; the individual is often unaware of how many people are truly affected by it. According to the USFA's National Fire Incident Reporting System, approximately 210,300 fires are intentionally set every year. (NFIRS, 2009) This makes of a very large percentage of all fires reported to fire departments every year, 13% to be exact. There are many different types of intentionally set fires. 40% are natural vegetation fires, 23% are structure fires (this is what is commonly pictured when the word arson is used), 15% are mobile property (vehicle) fires (NFIRS, 2009). It must be noted that not all of these intentionally set fires are classified under arson. These statistics depict intentionally set fires, whether that is control burns which get out of hand and need assistance to control them or the burning of wastes which also need intervention from fire fighters to end the threat. Intentionally set fires in structures and mobile property will be the main focus of this study.
Since there are such a large number of intentionally set fires which occur every year, most of the time on an individual's private property, there is a great deal of property damage involved. Intentionally set fires cause approximately $1.4 billion in property loss each year (U.S. Fire Administration, 2001). $533 million of this is due to the 18,100 intentionally set fires in residential buildings (NFIRS, 2009). Along with the high cost of property damage done, there is also a high cost of physical damage. Most arson crimes are not meant to cause physical harm but they often times do although statistics on fire motivated out of hatred or revenge are rising. Annually there are 290 deaths that occur from intentionally set structure fires. Along with these deaths, 850 people were injured (NFIRS, 2009). Not only do people lose millions in property damage from arson crimes every year, hundreds of people are injured or killed because of it.
It is a necessity that arson is studied and as much information and statistics are discovered as possible. As previously stated, arson is responsible for millions of dollars in damages and for killing or injuring hundreds of innocent people. This alone makes the crime of arson an important area to look into. But more than that, it is important to create a profile of an arsonist, both juvenile and adult, because arson is often times an indicator of other criminal behavior. It is important to understand why children intentionally start fires and how we can help to prevent this behavior from continuing or becoming worse. Discovering what to look for and what to do once a juvenile has been identified as having fire starting behavior will go a long way in helping treat the at risk youth and what to do in order to protect the community.
A serial arsonist is defined as a fire setter who sets three or more fires with a significant cooling-off period between fires (FBI, 1994). A publication, Report of Essential Findings from a Study of Serial Arsonists, was released by the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime in 1994 in which they obtained and analyzed data of 83 serial arsonists. 43 were interviewed between 1978-1980 while 41 more were interviewed between 1990-1992. During these interviews, researchers worked to find out everything about these arsonists as they could. The main points which they focused on were characteristics, motives, and life history pattern of the arsonists. The researchers also received access to the records of 1,000 incarcerated arsonists. These records were also studied and the data was recorded and analyzed. The following is what this study found with regard to serial arsonists.
"Findings revealed that most serial arsonists were young white males; 58.7 percent of fires were set by offenders before 18 years of age, and 79.7 percent were set before 29 years of age. Overall marital adjustment and life histories of serial arsonists were poor, suggesting that they lacked stability in interpersonal relationships. The average educational level of serial arsonists was 10th grade, 71 percent reported prior felony arrests, and over half reported significant medical histories. Only about one-third had regular occupations, and none were employed in professional positions. The family situation for most serial arsonists was either comfortable or at least self-sufficient. Serial arsonists noted that relationships with their mothers and fathers were often cold, distant, hostile, or aggressive. No discernible patterns were observed in the overall target selection of serial arsonists, accomplices were involved in 20.3 percent of arson cases, nearly all serial arsonists used unsophisticated methods to set fires, and about one-third remained at the scene after setting the fire. The majority of serial arsonists set only one fire in a location. Nearly half the sample used alcohol before setting fires. The most common motive for setting fires was revenge, followed by excitement, vandalism, profit, and other crime concealment (FBI, 1994)."
As confirmed by the FBI study, revenge is the most common motive for setting fires. But information in this field was being studied as the FBI was just beginning theirs. In 1981, Clifford L Karachmer released a report on this topic of revenge motivated arson. C.L. Karachmer studied causes of why individuals would intentionally set fires and ways that law enforcement could go about dealing with this. At the end of this article, he states that many revenge arsons are rationally planned. The individual who intentionally sets the fire sits down before the event and with a clear head, determines how he will approach the situation although the fire is often set while the individual is in a "highly emotional state." (Karachmer, 1981) C.L. Karachmer also spent a great deal of time studying domestic-disputes and domestic violence. Through his research in this specific area he came across another discovery. He saw that an individual who uses arson as revenge often begins small and works his way up to the "especially destructive act." (Karachmer, 1981) This should be as no surprise since most domestic violence cases take this similar route. Many small and "relatively minor incidents" occur, each one building upon the last. These minor incidents are often overlooked by the victim or if reported to police, they are not properly recorded or dealt with. Revenge arson is the most dangerous type of arson because as the name says, it's done out of revenge. The perpetrator intentionally sets a fire in hopes of injuring or killing the possible victim.
But revenge is not the only reason that an individual commits the crime of arson. Arson can be used for monetary gain and because of this; it is sometimes seen as a white collar crime. According to a definition released by the FBI, fraud is the art of deliberate deception for unlawful gain. An individual who willfully sets fire to a car, house or business with hopes of collecting on the insurance they have on that property, is doing this solely for profit. They are often in the midst of economic hardship or they may be the owner of a failing business. Many insurance policies pay compensation to individuals whose property is destroyed due to a fire. This can be an easy way for someone to make some quick money.
The FBI has already developed a fairly accurate profile of an arsonist. But within this somewhat general profile, there are more specific types of people responsible for arson crimes. Two intriguing subcategories in this profile are those of firefighters and juveniles. Firefighters who are responsible for setting these fires do fit into the FBI profile, white males, young, often a product of an unstable environment (Sapp, 1994). The only difference is that they are firefighters. The number of firefighter firesetting is not currently known. The National Interagency Fire Center, the National Fire Incident Reporting System, and the UCR all report the crime of arson but they do not look into or record the number of fires set by fire or rescue personnel. Because there is no way to report and record this specific crime, "cases that occur tend to be viewed as anomalies and perceived as isolated incidents" (Huff, 2003). Different states deal with this problem in different ways. Some states have developed programs, task forces, and subcommittees that look into and study firefighter arson while some states do nothing at all. South Carolina was one of the leaders in the field of actively studying and pursuing criminal firefighters. In 1993, The South Carolina Forestry Commission (SCEC) reported that 33 fire department volunteers were charged with arson. They also reported that in 1994, 47 firefighters were charged (Cabe, 1994). Thanks to reports like this, more and more departments have realized the seriousness of the problem and have taken steps to reduce the number of individuals hired who have a tendency to set fires.
The motives of firefighters differ from that of a "civilian" arsonist because a firefighter often sets fire with the desire to be a hero. Firefighters go through hours of training and instruction on how to successfully handle a fire. New firefighters are often "excited, eager, and motivated. And the alarm doesn't sound nearly often enough" (Cabe, 1994). These firefighters use intentionally set fires as a way to put their training to practical use. They desire to be "the first to call in a fire, the first on the scene, and one of the most eager, excited, and enthusiastic members of the response team." (Huff, 2003) In nearly all cases, firefighters choose abandoned or unoccupied building to achieve this goal. But in North Carolina, one firefighter selected an occupied house. His goal was to start a fire and then return to save the family. Luckily, this arsonist was arrested before his plan could be put into action (Cabe, 1994).
Fire departments have taken many steps to ensure that their community does not become a victim of firefighter arson. Task forces have been set up to spearhead the investigation into criminal firefighters. Departments have taken many steps in their hiring process to weed out any potential arsonists. Stricter screening of applicants has helped to weed out any potential arsonists. A few states also use training courses to educate all firefighters on the issue. One key step which needs to be taken but only one state has is requiring a criminal background check of all applicants. Other states attempting to push legislation through that would require it. This would be effective only to a point though because more firefighters to intentionally set fire have little or no criminal history (Cabe, 1994). Still, this would be an effective way of weeding out and identifying firefighter arsonists. Fortunately, there are only a small percentage of firefighters who are guilty of actions such as this. This is only a fraction of honest and hardworking firefighters to work to serve the community.
Another subcategory of arsonists which has received a great deal of attention is that of intentional fires set by juveniles. A 1995 study done by the FBI showed that juveniles accounted for 52 percent of all arson arrests (Garry, 1997). Although this study is fifteen years old, current numbers have remained around 50%.
"Juvenile firesetters fall into three general groups. The first is made up of children under 7 years of age. Generally, fires started by these children are the result of accidents or curiosity. In the second group of firesetters are children ranging in age from 8 to 12. Although the firesetting of some of these children is motivated by curiosity or experimentation, a greater proportion of their firesetting represents underlying psychosocial conflicts. The third group comprises adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18. These youth tend to have a long history of undetected fireplay and firestarting behavior. Their current firesetting episodes are usually either the result of psychosocial conflict and turmoil or intentional criminal behavior. (Garry, 1997)"
It is important to understand why juveniles intentionally set fires. Through an understanding of this, we are able to get them the adequate help they need. At risk behavior and indicators of future behavior can also be seen in juveniles when this topic is looked at more closely. But this is a difficult area to study. "Juvenile firesetting likely has multiple causes, and firesetters may be of many different types. What works with members of one group may not work with members of another because their behaviors may have discrete origins" (Puntnam & Kirkpatrick, 2005).
According to Charles T. Putnam and John T. Kirkpatrick in the article Juvenile Firesetting: A Research Overview, released by the OJJDP in 2005, the literature we have with regards to juvenile firesetting falls into four main areas: measurement, typologies, etiology, and intervention, control, and treatment (Putnam & Kirkpatrick, 2005). The literature falling into the measurement area often only uses small samples of incarcerated juveniles who have been convicted of firesetting. Because of this, some studies "may not accurately capture and reflect the characteristics of all firesetting behavior or the traits of the entire population of firesetters" (Putnam & Kirkpatrick, 2005). Most juveniles who intentionally set fire and do not get caught are unable to be studied. The juvenile first has to be identified as a firestarter in order to be studied. This also have caused problems for individuals to study the prevalence of intentionally set fires because some studies indicate that only 40 percent of juvenile firesetting behavior is reported (Putnam & Kirkpatrick, 2005).
A typology refers to a way in which we study types. With regards to juvenile firesetters, four main typologies have been developed. These four subtypes of a firestarter include: curious, pathological, expressive, and delinquent(Putnam & Kirkpatrick, 2005). Although most juveniles all possess similar traits and characteristics, motivation is often the differing factor.
"The curious firesetter uses fire out of fascination, the pathological out of deep-seated individual dysfunction, the expressive as a cry for help, and the delinquent as a means to antisocial or destructive ends. Importantly, these categories are not always mutually exclusive. A firesetter, for example, may use fire for expressive and delinquent reasons simultaneously. In any case, references to psychological typology, or slight variations on it, appear widely in the literature. (Putnam & Kirkpatrick, 2005)"
Etiology is the study of causation or origin. In the realm of juvenile firesetting it seeks to "explain and predict behavior" (Putnam & Kirkpatrick, 2005). Because there are many different things that motivate a juvenile to intentionally set a fire, it is difficult to determine one thing which caused the event. Eight theories have been developed for why juveniles set fire. They deal with the motive of the juvenile, the origin, and the etiological theme.
There are three main theories which will be touched on. The first is that of the Opportunity theory. The main themes within this theory are that "firesetting is a product of the open and relatively unrestricted access to fire as an instrument and/or weapon" (Cohen and Felson, 1979). This theory deals with the fact that juveniles will intentionally set fires because they can. There is not an ulterior motive behind their intentionally set fires. These would be juveniles who set fires due to curiosity and a large percentage of all juveniles would fall into this category.
Another theory is the Stress theory. This is one of the most popular theories for why juveniles start fires. According to Stephen Lyng in his article published in the American Journal of Sociology, "Firesetting is a behavior that releases accumulating stress or seeks stress or danger in an uneventful life. It is often closely related to vandalism, shoplifting, and graffiti among juveniles" (Lyng, 1990). This theory deals with common juvenile delinquents. They often commit petty crimes such as vandalism or graffiti because they may be rebelling or looking for some excitement in their lives. Most juveniles grow out of this stage as they grow older, mature, and develop meaningful connections with people or establishments.
One last popular theory is that of the Risk Assessment theory. Two authors who have dealt extensively with this theory are Kolko and Kazdin. In a article published by the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology they stated, "Firesetting is a behavior that develops as a juvenile matures and either co-occurs with or is produced by other indivualistic and/or environmental circumstances" (Kolko and Kazdin, 1986). They believed that firesetting was a sign of deeper problems either within the child's environment or within the psychological makeup of that juvenile. This is a particularly important theory to understand because it is seen as the beginning of things to come. This firesetter often does not grow out of this stage but only matures in his criminal activity. It becomes more frequent and more extreme. By identifying juveniles who fall into this category, they can receive the necessary help to curb future criminal behavior.
The final area within juvenile firesetting literature deals with how to effectively intervene, control, and treat these individuals. Juveniles must be educated on the dangers of firesetting. Effective education will help to lower the number of young kids who set fires out of curiosity. Psychological counseling will help those who set fires due to mental problems cope with it. Whole programs such as the Arson and Juvenile Firesetting Module: NFIRS-11 have been developed with the sole purpose of studying juvenile arson and their motivations behind it along with the best way to help these juveniles.
The Future of Arson Research
There is already a great deal of literature available on arson. Hundreds if not thousands of articles have been written by qualified doctors or scientists. We already understand a great deal about arson. What motivates an individual to commit this crime? What type of person is responsible for this? Why are juveniles responsible for half of all arsons? These questions have been answered and we can apply the results to most cases. But there is still a great deal which we need to study about this topic. One area which is achieving a great deal of attention and is moving forward is that of investigating arson.
There are whole manuals written on how to investigate a fire in order to determine whether or not it was intentional or accidental. The currently used by fire investigators is the NFPA 921, or "Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations". Its purpose is "to establish guidelines and recommendations for the safe and systematic investigation or analysis of fire and explosion incidents" (Willey, 2004). This manual lays out in detail the exact method which should be used by investigators during the investigation of every specific fire. When each step is followed precisely, investigators can determine the source of the fire ignition, the growth of the fire, and how it spread. These are key pieces of information needed to determine whether or not a crime was actually committed.
Along with this manual, the ATF is developing a state of the art Fire Research Laboratory in Maryland for the sole purpose of continuing the scientific study of fires, particularly with regards to intentionally set fires. The idea for this laboratory first started in 1997 after an International Conference on Fire Research for Fire Investigation. "70 leading authorities from the fields of fire research, investigation, and education from the United States and five foreign countries attended the conference (Donahue, 2007)". By the end of this conference, four goals were developed that were to be put into action with hopes of advancing their knowledge of arson. The goals were:
To assess the current state of the art of fire investigation and its use of scientific principles and methodologies
To identify fire-investigation needs for research and education
To recommend the role the Fire Research Laboratory should play in advancing fire investigation and research
To recommend capabilities and staffing for the Fire Research Laboratory to successfully accomplish its mission (Donahue, 2007)
Up until this conference, there were no fire-research facilities in the United States. This laboratory will provide a vast wealth of information in the scientific field of fire investigation. Some issues to be studied by the Fire Research Lab include "fire-scene-reconstruction, flashover studies, validation of fire-pattern analysis indicators, impact of accelerants on fire growth and spread, ignition studies, and electrical fire cause analysis" (Donahue, 2007). All these studies will further our knowledge of fires and will make the investigation even more scientific.
Thanks to this new fire-research facility, a vast new knowledge of arson will be unlocked. Current investigation is not nearly as scientific as it should be. Innocent men get convicted and sentenced to jail while guilty men walk free because not enough was proven in court. The research done by this facility will eventually lead to a higher conviction rate.
Arson is an extremely immense field of study within the Criminal Justice System. Scholars have dedicated their lives to studying arson and developing new theories on what types of people commit this crime and why they do it. Whole facilities have been developed solely for the purpose of improving our knowledge in this field. But as with all fields in the Criminal Justice system, it is constantly changing. As technology improves, we will be faced with new issues. Because of this, we must continue to research and gain knowledge on this subject.