Day care workers who molest children, religious leaders who seduce parishioners, police officers who brutalize citizens—unfortunately, our icons seem to crumble regularly in the national news. They break a sacred trust and public outrage becomes the expression of private fear. Righteous indignation comes easy when the guilt is somewhere else. But when the headlines scream “Fireman Arrested for Arson,” it gets downright personal.
The South Carolina Forestry Commission began looking closely at this phenomenon in 1993. By the end of the year, the tally of confirmed arrests was truly alarming—at least 33 fire department volunteers had been charged with arson. In 1994, 47 more were arrested. Forestry Commission and South Carolina Fire Service officials alike were astounded at the extent of the problem. “We knew it happened occasionally,” said Miles Knight, fire chief of the Forestry Commission, “but we were surprised by numbers like this.”
Is this something relatively new, perhaps related to the popularity of “real-life emergency” television programming? Or is it a long standing problem, the magnitude of which had eluded the scrutiny of fire management professionals? Maybe these cases just didn’t stand out among the thousands of other arson incidents, and maybe sensitivity to the embarrassment of involved departments clouded our vision.
We may never know for certain because most law enforcement records don’t routinely differentiate between arsonists who are firefighters and those who are not. Without comprehensive information, the natural tendency is to view each case as an isolated incident.
This may be the case in other southern states as well. Most forestry agencies in the south acknowledge that firefighter arson does occur to some extent. The Alabama Forestry Commission says they investigated five or six cases in 1993; Arkansas has had five or six cases over the past few years; Kentucky has a “significant problem” with individuals setting fires so they can be hired to put them out; and Louisiana notes that wildland firefighters sometimes set fires to gain overtime pay. Some state law enforcement agencies in the south can tell you how many cases of firefighter arson they have prosecuted, but we found no single source of information in any of the states we polled.
The situation is much the same with national fire agencies—nobody seems to know, and at least one major national fire agency denied having any knowledge of firefighter arson whatsoever.
Developing good communication among agencies with arson jurisdiction is the key to determining whether firefighter arson is a significant problem. In South Carolina, the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) Arson Unit was already aware that firefighter arson was significant. Coordination between SLED and the Forestry Commission brought the problem to the fore. These two organizations now regularly share information and cooperate in joint investigations.
With about 40 percent of all southern woods fires attributed to arson, how are possible cases of firefighter arson identified? Captain Bill Graham of SLED’s Arson Unit says its fairly simple if you know what to look for: a series of fires in the same area, beginning with woods, grass, and dumpster fires and progressing over time to include barns, sheds, and abandoned buildings. False alarms and bomb threats are also included in some cases.
Who are these firefighters who weave back and forth between the role of knight and knave? Using existing research into the psychology of arson, the Forestry Commission has developed descriptors that present a general profile of the firefighter arsonist. While these are still being tested for reliability, law enforcement officers in South Carolina say they are remarkably accurate:
White male, age 17-26
- Product of a disruptive, harsh, or unstable rearing environment
- Poor relationship with father, overprotective mother
- If married, poor marital adjustment
- Lacking in social and interpersonal skills
- Poor occupational adjustment, employed in low-paying jobs
- Fascinated with fire service and it trappings
- May be facing unusual stress (family, financial, or legal problems
- Average to above-average intelligence but poor to fair academic performance
In South Carolina, those firemen who were charged with serial arson were unpaid volunteers. Why do they set fires? Obviously not for monetary gain, so the answer is necessarily a lot more complicated.
The descriptive profile suggests that these young men have very little to bolster their self-esteem except their role as heroic firefighters. Noted arson researchers Lewis and Yarnell (1951) support this idea in their description of the “would-be hero” arsonist:
“ . . . men with grandiose social ambitions whose natural equipment dooms them to insignificance.”
National FBI research conducted at about the same time as the South Carolina study resulted in many of the same findings. While the FBI study (Huff, 1994) showed most firefighter arsonists worked alone, many South Carolina cases involved several firefighters from a single department. This is similar to group behavior in adolescents, suggesting that insecurity and lack of maturity are indeed significant in the psychology of firefighter arsonists.
Most of those arrested have less than two years with the fire service, and most are associated with a department that has few fire calls. They’ve completed a home study course plus 96 hours of formal instruction. They are excited, eager, and motivated. And the alarm doesn’t sound nearly often enough.
South Carolina law enforcement officers have found that most of the firemen arrested did not have criminal records. Fortunately, those who choose arson as their road to glory have so far avoided burning occupied structures. But in North Carolina, where the firefighter arson problem seems similar, one arrested arsonist was already planning to take his heroics a step further. His goal, according to a State Bureau of Investigation agent, was to burn an occupied home so he could rescue the occupants. In a 1980 publication, the FBI notes that while firefighter arsonists may be relatively few in number, they have “the propensity for serious destructiveness.” (Rider, 1980).
Regardless of intentions and motivation, wanton burning is a felony under South Carolina law. “I don’t think they realize that a woods fire can get them up to five years and that burning an abandoned barn carries a maximum penalty of 20 years,” said Forestry Commission Investigator Mike Heath. One teenage volunteer recently arrested by South Carolina authorities is facing imprisonment for 70 years if maximum sentences are imposed.
So what is the answer? Law enforcement is only a stopgap and an expensive one at that. “We’re spending a lot of the State’s resources policing the protectors,” said SLED’s Captain Graham. “There’s got to be a better way.”
In search of that better way, Forestry Commission and SLED officials met with leaders of the South Carolina fire service in the spring of 1994. Included were the State Fire Marshal, the presidents of the Firemen’s Association and Fire Chief’s Association, and a representative of the State Arson Investigator’s Association. As a result, fire service officials pledged to face the challenge head on, both publicly and within the fire service.
The Firemen’s Association immediately issued an alert advising all fire service officers to begin identifying at-risk members of their departments. In August 1994, the State Firemen’s Association empowered their executive committee to begin addressing the problem. Supporting this effort, the Forestry Commission distributed bulletin board posters to all fire departments, outlining the penalties for arson crimes.
Several major efforts are now under way. For example, the State Fire Academy will soon adopt a firefighter arson awareness program into their curriculum. Also, the South Carolina Firemen’s Association and Educational Television are co-sponsoring a statewide teleconference involving fire and law enforcement agencies, planned for late winter in 1996. As a result of the South Carolina initiative, the Southern Group of State Foresters has applied for a grant to develop a psychological screening instrument for new firefighters.
If you look in enough dark closets, sooner or later you’re going to find a skeleton. Then you have a choice: slam the door and hide it, or turn on the light and start cleaning. Assisted by the Forestry Commission and the State Law Enforcement Division, South Carolina’s fire service has already grabbed the broom.
Huff, Timothy. 1994. Firesetting firefighters. Quantico, VA: Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI Academy. 15p.
Lewis, Nolan D.C.; Yarnell, Helen. 1951. Pathological firesetting (pyromania).
Nervous and Mental Disease Monographs, No. 82. New York: Coolidge Foundation: 228
Rider, Anthony Olen. 1980. The firesetter, a psychological profile. Quantico, VA:
Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI Academy. 23 p.