Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue protocols are successful in treating kids of various ages
Kids have probably set fires since the caveman days when juveniles rubbed two sticks together, but today, fire districts have come up with a whole new strategy for dealing with youths who set inappropriate fires.
Instead of operating "juvenile fire-setter programs," as they used to be called, officials now run "youth fire-intervention programs," according to Amber Cross, a Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue deputy fire marshal.
"Since 2008, our program has become one of intervention," she said. "And the terminology has changed from 'playing with fire' to 'misusing fire.'"
Referrals may come in from juvenile departments, fire investigators and/or personnel, parents/grandparents/guardians, counselors or school personnel.
TVF&R follows a strict protocol after someone reports that a child between ages 4 to 17 may be misusing fire.
"We don't go to the home," Cross said of the confidential program. "We first talk on the phone, and then the family comes in. While the adults are filling out forms, I do the youth interview using set questions, although it is more of a conversation. Then we all come back together."
"I score every part of the process - the youth interview and the parent interview, and decide what avenue to use," Cross said.
The age of the child determines how he or she will be treated; for example, older kids will be taught fire and life-safety skills.
An age-appropriate fire-safety education program may be utilized that includes learning the differences between good and bad fires as well as mind-mapping activities, which demonstrate to the kids the repercussions of their actions.
Kids age 6 to 11 go through a fire safety academy, while those 12 to 17 take a six-week safety course.
"Once a group of six to eight forms, the classes start," Cross said. "Fire-safety classes are not mandatory if a parent has referred their child to us, but if the state or a school resource officer is involved, then it is mandatory. Once they're done, they graduate. We have lots of different partners in this process - it's all about partners."
She added, "You've got to get creative with high school students."
For example, one girl who started a fire had to meet the people she affected, and the fire station captain asked her, "What if a call for a cardiac arrest came in while we were dealing with this fire? Someone might have died."
Also, her parents told her they had to miss work to deal with the situation.
The cases conclude with a letter containing the fire district recommendations, which may include referrals to the Fire Safe Children and Families Program or a mental health professional.
TVF&R provides a checklist for parents to follow that includes teaching their children about the power of fire; increasing their supervision and being aware of their children's activities; understanding that children who misuse fire are not just going through a "phase" that they will outgrow; and utilizing programs that assist families in identifying the root cause of the behavior and getting the education and counseling they need.
According to Cross, TVF&R handles between 63 and 69 fire-setting cases per year across its 210-square-mile district.
"It keeps us very busy and active," she said. "I enjoy working with this program, but it's challenging, and a lot goes into the assessments. We don't want these situations to escalate.
"I didn't realize the importance of this program until I came on board at TVF&R. Our success rate is really good."