UWE researcher investigates juvenile fire starters

Issue date: 14 April 2010

University of the West of England The findings of a unique research project into why some young people show a dangerous interest in starting fires will be presented at the British Psychological Society's Annual Conference this week.

'Why do some young people set fires?' is the central theme of a PhD thesis by Donna Lovell from the University of the West of England. The research was part funded by Great Western Research and Avon Fire & Rescue Service which carries out one-to-one interventions with young people referred to the service due to their interest in firesetting.

As part of the study Donna surveyed 321 pupils aged between 11 – 16 across the South West to investigate the prevalence and type of firesetting behaviour amongst the general population. She discovered that 65% of secondary pupils in the survey (75% of boys and 53% of girls) had been involved in fire related activities.

Donna also worked closely with staff at AF&RS who provided access to young people and families involved with their Firesetters scheme. To get a better understanding of the underlying motivations and behaviour related to firesetting Donna Lovell carried out a two-year qualitative in depth study of twelve families where one or more child was involved in the intervention programme for firesetting behaviour.

Her research has already been recognised at the Gore / Fire Research Excellence Awards 2009 and has been presented to the Chief Fire Officer's Association.

Donna explains: “We know that fires can have devastating emotional, social and economic costs, so it is crucial that we understand how to prevent this dangerous behaviour. It is estimated that a third of car fires and half of all property arsons are carried out by youths under 18, so this is clearly an important area where more research is needed.

“Many of the families I interviewed had multiple problems and their lives were very chaotic. In one case I found that the fire setting behaviour stemmed from an undiagnosed developmental disorder, and other cases related to frustration from problems at school and at home that weren't getting resolved.

"Interventions that incorporate fire safety advice and detailing the consequences of firesetting can be very effective for many youths; however, there are some youths who do not respond well to interventions. These are often the result of chronic social and personal issues and unresolved frustrations.

“Firesetting can also be tied up with friendships, and seeking approval. But there were also environmental aspects to some firesetting behaviour, for example the neighbourhood can be an important factor, particularly if youths have been bought up in an area where there are frequent fires set by youths. Firesetting can become normalised in these neighbourhoods.

“The findings from the study suggest that many children and adolescents have an interest and involvement in fire, with some youths experimenting with fire and others being involved more frequently and taking more risks.

“It is far better for a youth to learn about fire from a responsible adult rather than from their peer groups. Fire and rescue services carry out many interventions with youths and their families and are excellent role models for the young people.”

Jane Carvell, Youth Intervention Manager at Avon Fire & Rescue Service explained: “Donna's work is extremely important, not only here in Avon, but nationally as juvenile firesetting in the UK is an area in which there has been very little research.

“Over the last six years we have trained 30 members of staff to carry out one-to-one interventions with young people referred to us from a range of agencies. These may be very young children with an interest in fire play, through to teenagers with serious arson habits, but in many cases our staff have identified serious underlying issues that haven't been picked up by any other agencies.

“While we have enjoyed successes through the Firesetters programme, the insight this research provides will allow us to focus our efforts more effectively on interventions that are proven to work. The fire and rescue services have a duty of care to the community and this valuable research will help us take steps to prevent fires with tragic outcomes happening in the first place."

Donna's research paper is being presented at the British Psychological Society Annual Conference, 14 – 16 April 2010, at Stratford on Avon. For further details see: http://www.bps.org.uk/ac2010/

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