If you can answer these questions, you’re ahead of the curve. If you can’t, then you’re like many fire departments that lack the data to get a handle on the size and nature of the youth firesetting problem. That’s not a criticism, it’s a reality. In general, collection and analysis of data tend to be among the greatest challenges for the fire service of the United States. And in the case of youth firesetting, there is evidence that the scope of the problem may be greatly understated.
I’ve reported in the past that some states have dug a little deeper in their National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) reporting - Iowa in particular - and, in part by providing software to the fire service of their state, they increased the quality of reporting in general and for youth firesetting significantly. From about 12th in ranking, youth firesetting rose to about third in the overall causal factors of fire incidents in Iowa. That was in large part because of increases in the quality of reporting.
And that is just fire service reports. What about all the incidents we never hear about? Like those that happen at school, where police or mental health professionals may get word of an incident and the fire department does not. Youth firesetting behavior is a complex and serious problem. I’ve known that since my early days as a public fire and life safety educator. Back then, early data collection and analysis tools were created by the United States Fire Administration to help us determine if youth firesetting was driven by curiosity - common in most children, especially male - or if there were other emotional issues that were driving something more serious than curiosity.
There is much more to the scope of the problem than I can write about here, but I did want to call attention to a new tool that can help in a variety of ways. The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Charitable Burn Foundation, through funding from the Assistance to Firefighter Grants, has been working for years to develop the Youth Firesetting Information Repository & Evaluation System (YFIRES).
It is a supplemental and more robust database that allows the collection of additional information about firesetting behavior not found in NFIRS. It is not a replacement for NFIRS; rather, more like the supplemental incident reports we used to fill out for fireworks, this system allows local communities to input data that can provide a better view of firesetting scope, behavior, and attitudes.
The efforts of a subject matter expert team created by the IAFF, which included fire service and mental health practitioners, led to a set of 20 data elements determined to be most useful and applicable to understanding youth firesetting.
YFIRES was further developed into a data system that allowed users to enter all case information for secure, cloud-based storage while allowing a simple download of the 20 national data elements into a national repository. The system went live in 2015 and now has more than 250 programs registered and using the system, with users in 44 states.
What that means is that participants can download a standardized report that helps analyze the youth firesetting problems in their community. And, it also creates a national sample of data that can provide a much more comprehensive view of the scope and nature of the youth firesetting problem in the United States.
Of the 250 registered programs using YFIRES, most are fire department-based (approximately 85 percent). The other registered programs are based in partnering disciplines such as nonprofits (typically support agencies for burn centers), medical facilities with burn centers, juvenile justice-based programs, and law enforcement-based intervention programs.
A Big Problem
I don’t expect that youth firesetting will overtake kitchen fires for raw incident numbers nationally. And I don’t think that the scope of the problem will surpass the still high numbers of smoking-related fire deaths.
But the youth firesetting problem in the United States is larger than we think, and improving our understanding of it all with a supplemental database and accompanying analytics is certainly worth the effort.
It is perhaps an example we might follow for other data collection and analysis issues we collectively face.
My friend Don Porth has been working with the IAFF on this project from the beginning and, together with Phil Tamarro, helped me understand the need for this data-collection system. He and the YFIRES executive team are looking for additional participants to increase the sample of information they receive from across the nation. Those who are interested can look more closely at it by going to YFIRES.com or by contacting Don at Don@YFIRES.com.