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A Spark of Help for Kids Who Start Fires

Teaching anger control -- and more -- helps extinguish further trouble

THURSDAY, May 10 (HealthScout) -- Teaching a boy who's once started a fire how to control his anger, solve his problems and what fire safety means makes him less likely to light more fires, contends one of the leading experts on the subject.

A simple visit from a firefighter -- one of the more common methods of dealing with such problems -- can help but may not be enough, says David J. Kolko, an associate professor of child psychiatry, psychology and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Kolko's recent study of 70 Pittsburgh-area boys who'd lit fires looked at the number of repeat incidents a year after the kids had been treated through one of three methods: visits from a firefighter, participation in a fire safety education program or cognitive behavioral therapy.

"The good news is that they all seem to have some kind of impact," Kolko says. "But the better news is that we can actually improve the impact even more if they receive FSE [the safety education program] or CBE [the behavioral therapy]."

Those programs are "structured, conceptionally based and more intensive," he says, and that seems to make all the difference.

The education program focuses on fire safety principles, while the therapy includes training in anger control and problem solving, Kolko says. For the study, both lasted eight sessions. The firefighter visits, on the other hand, involved one initial visit and either a follow-up call or visit eight weeks later.

"There was a clear reduction in the number of fires set by children in all three conditions," Kolko says. "But there still was an advantage [to the more structured programs], especially at follow-up."

One year after treatment, only 15 percent of the kids who'd received fire safety instruction had set another fire, compared with 24 percent of those who received cognitive behavioral therapy treatment and 50 percent of those who'd been visited by a firefighter, the study says. Details appear in a recent issue of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Each year, almost 100,000 fires are started in the United States by children, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, which is part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Almost two-thirds of the fires set by kids are outdoor trash or grass fires, says the National Fire Protection Association.

In 1997, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 284 people were killed and 2,158 injured by fires that children started, and property damage from those fires totaled more than $283 million, says association spokeswoman Margie Coloian.

"Fire play remains the leading cause of fire deaths among preschoolers, accounting for nearly two-fifths of such deaths in recent years," Coloian says.

"Most of the people killed by child-play fires are under 6 years of age," she says. "But the victims are not limited to children playing with fires. [For instance], when children play with lighters, the fatal victims are often younger siblings or playmates of the children who start the fires."

Kids start fires for a range of reasons: "For fun, curiosity, experimentation, because they're bored," Kolko says. "Or, some actually like fire. Others set fires mostly for attention -- out of anger, revenge…[or] conflict, trying to control some type of situation or get back at someone."

"Sometimes it's a mix of reasons," he says.

Most youthful firestarters are boys, he says, adding that was the reason the study included only boys. Boys who started fires outnumbered girls 9 to 1 at one point, he says.

However, the number of girls engaged in this activity is increasing, Kolko says, "and we would, in fact, take girls now."

The "gut feeling" researchers in this field have, he says, is that the type of treatment should match the firestarter's motive.

"It might make sense to match carefully," Kolko says, "but we don't have strong evidence to suggest that's what works best."

But something more definitely needs to be done, he says. That's because research has shown that almost half of all children who've set a fire will set another one within two years.

"We need much more work in this area," he says. "We don't have all the answers yet."

What To Do

To read more about what happens when kids start fires, check out this report from ABC News.

For answers to common questions about children and fire, visit the Web site of SOS Fires, a nonprofit group focused on the problem of youth fire setting.

For an assortment of statistics, articles and links on juvenile fire setting, visit the Oregon State Fire Marshal online.

Or, you might want to read previous HealthScout articles on health issues related to fire.

SOURCES: Interviews with David J. Kolko, Ph.D., associate professor of child psychiatry, psychology and pediatrics, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and director, Special Services Unit, Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, both in Pittsburgh, Pa; Margie Coloian, public affairs manager, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, Mass.; March 2001 Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology
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