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Kids and Fire - The Burning Truth

matchDuring the summer, especially around the Fourth of July, the number of children playing with fire increases dramatically. Many children who are allowed to use fireworks and ignition sources continue to do so after July 4. Once a child is given the opportunity to use matches and lighters, it is very difficult to take back that empowerment.

Children are naturally curious about fire, but most do not understand the real dangers or consequences. Many children think they can control a fire, when in reality a fire can get out of hand very quickly.

The consequences of just one fire play incident can be devastating to a family and community. In addition to burn injury, loss of life, and property damage, families can be held financially and legally responsible.

As a parent, here are some steps you can take to help keep your child and family safe:

  • Find out what your child already knows about fire safety.
  • Put matches, lighters and ignition devices in a safe, secure place. Treat these items as you would a dangerous weapon. Ask your children where the matches and lighters are located in your house; you’ll be surprised to learn what they know.
  • Set clear rules and expectations. Young children should "tell" a grown-up if they find matches and lighters so adults can put them in a secure place. As children get older they can "give" the ignition devices to you. When you feel it is appropriate, teach children how to use fire in a safe and appropriate manner, under adult supervision.
  • Talk about peer pressure and what your child should do if they are around other kids who are playing with fire. Even if your child is simply watching, they can still get in trouble for just being there. Teach them to leave the situation and report it to an adult.
  • Talk about the consequences of fire property damage, injury, and loss of life. If you had a fire, how would it change your life and the lives of others? There can also be legal consequences children may be unaware of. Starting at age 12, children can be charged for setting a fire.
  • Make sure your child is being supervised. Most children who play with fire have easy access to ignition devices and are not being supervised at the time of the incident.
  • Practice fire safety in your home. Install and maintain smoke detectors, take measures to prevent fires, and develop and practice a home escape plan.
  • Children play with fire for many reasons. Young children may set fires out of curiosity or as a cry for help. Older adolescents may set fires as a prank or dare. Whatever the motivation, early identification and intervention is critical.

If...Your child has played with fire
If...Your child has deliberately set a fire
If...You are unsure of how to teach your child about fire safety
Call the Renton Fire Department-we can help!

Fire Stoppers Program

Fire Stoppers is an intervention program designed to educate children and parents about fire safety and the consequences of fire.

Each family meets individually with a trained fire service educator. The educator will discuss the situation with the family and provide fire safety education. If a child needs additional intervention, such as counseling, educators can link the family up with these services. Fire department services are free.

Who can make a referral? Anyone who cares about the safety of a child can call for help. Families, friends, neighbors, teachers, etc.

The program takes approximately one and a half hours. All information discussed is confidential. 

Motivations for Youth Firesetting

Children play with fire for a variety of reasons. By determining the motivation for the firesetting, we can best determine how to deal with it. There are five basic classifications: curiosity/experimentation, reactionary, delinquent, strategic and pathological firesetting.

Curiosity/Experimentation

About 70 percent of children who play with fire are in this group. They are typically younger in age and are curious about fire. The opportunity is there because the child has access to fire tools and is not supervised at the time of the incident. He or she decides to "see what fire will do." They usually do not think about or understand the danger of their actions.  For example, Six-year-old Michael finds his parent's lighter on the table. He is feeling kind of bored, so he decides to light some papers and sticks on fire. His home life is stable and there have not been any recent stresses. He seems sorry for what he did.

Reactionary

If children are upset about something and not good at expressing themselves, they may use fire as a way to let grown-ups know they need help. Their firesetting is in reaction to a problem, such as a new baby in the family, divorce, moving or problems at school.  For example, a Mom and step-dad are fighting loudly. Amy, 11, is scared and wants them to stop. She does not know how to communicate how she feels, so she takes a lighter into her bedroom and sets her bedding on fire. When the parents notice this new emergency, they stop fighting. Imagine what is likely to happen the next time the parents fight if nothing changes?

Delinquent Behavior

Sometimes kids will light a fire as a prank or dare. Sometimes it is to cover up another crime. Most of the kids in this group, typically adolescent, do not realize they are breaking the law and could go to jail. They know what they are doing is wrong, but they may not understand the consequence of fire or potential liability to them and their family.  For example, Brad, 14, is dared by other kids to set fire to the toilet paper in the school bathroom.  Brad wants his friends to like him. Even though he knows it is wrong he does it anyway.

Strategic Firesetting

In some cases, children will escalate to deliberate acts of firesetting, with no regard for life or property (including their own). They know what they are doing is wrong and they understand the consequences. They may use fire for retaliation, as part of a group initiation, or to cover up a major crime.

Pathological Firesetting

This type of firesetting is rare and may be connected to a mental disorder or problem. Pathological firesetting may occur for obscure reasons not easily understood by those other than mental health professionals.

Myths about Youth Firesetting

Myth: It is normal for children to play with fire.
Fact: While curiosity about fire is common, use without a parent's approval or knowledge is dangerous to the child and anyone around them.

Myth: If you burn a child's hand, they will stop.
Fact: Burns only create fears and scars. The reason behind the fire use must be discovered and addressed.

Myth: If you take a child to the burn unit to see burn victims, they will stop playing with fire.
Fact: Going to the burn unit only instills fear, and does not teach the child anything about fire and fire safety. More importantly, we need to be sensitive to burn survivors who are trying to recover (emotionally and physically) from their burns and we should not put them on display.

Myth: Put a child in the back of a police car or have a firefighter talk sternly to them and they will be so scared they will not set a fire again.
Fact: A police officer will put a child in the back of their patrol car only if they have the legal authority, and if it is appropriate to do so. Scare tactics do not get to the root of the problem and these kids typically continue to set fires.

Myth: It is a phase the child will grow out of.
Fact: It is not a phase. It is a dangerous behavior. You cannot afford to wait for fire behavior to change. It only takes one match to cause serious injury or death.

Myth: Some children are obsessed with fire.
Fact: In reality, very few children are obsessed or would be considered pyromaniacs. There is almost always a reason behind the behavior.

For questions, additional information, or educational materials on youth fire safety, please contact the Renton Fire and Emergency Services Department at 425.430.7046.