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Youth intervention program aids those who misuse fire

by: BARBARA SHERMAN - Amber Cross is a deputy fire marshal with Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue who works with families and children who have misused fire, and there are many programs available to help kids get back on the right track. 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.

“Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue has had a youth program for many years in one form or another,” she said. “Most recently, our program has become one of intervention. And the terminology has changed from ‘playing’ with fire to ‘misusing’ fire.”

Youths who misuse fire are referred to Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue in a variety of ways including from juvenile departments, fire department staff, parents/grandparents/guardians, counselors or school personnel.

TVF&R follows a strict protocol after someone reports that a child may be misusing fire.

“We don’t go to their home, instead, we ask the family to come to one of our operating centers,” Cross said of the confidential program. “First, we explain our program to the parent or guardian over the phone; then we set up a time for the family to meet with us. Typically the initial meeting will take about an hour, depending on the youth and family.

“While the adults are filling out forms, I conduct a one-on-one interview with the child using a set list of questions, although it flows more like a conversation. Then we all come back together to discuss fire safety.”

The fire-safety discussion is age-appropriate for the youth’s learning level, and a variety of topics are discussed, including the importance of smoke alarms, having an escape plan and good (versus bad) fires, plus a mind-mapping activity is conducted that demonstrates to the kids the repercussions of their actions.

Cross gave the example of a girl who found a lighter at school and set a poster on fire.

The mind-mapping activities assigned to this girl included “talking about who was affected by this, so she could see how many people were involved by her decision,” Cross said. “We have to get creative with these kids in order to capture their attention and make an impact on them.”

Oftentimes youths feel they are the only one affected by their actions, but once they complete the mind-mapping assignment, they see that there are many agencies and people adversely affected by their decisions.

Every part of the process is reviewed and scored. “I score every part of the process, including the youth interview and the parent interview, and then decide what resources to use,” Cross said.

Depending on the situation, TVF&R may connect the family with mental health partners to assist them further if needed. However; most of the time the family is referred to a program called Fire Safe Children & Families, where the youth will attend either an academy or safety program. Kids aged 6 to 11 go through a fire safety academy, while 12-to-17-year-olds go through 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 are highly encouraged. If the juvenile department or law enforcement is involved, then classes may be mandatory.

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF AMBER CROSS - This Teddy bear was burnt following a fire started by a student in one of TVF&R's youth fire-intervention programs.  “We have lots of different partners in this process all working together to help change the behavior of a child misusing fire.”

TVF&R also provides a checklist for parents that includes teaching their children about the power of fire; increasing their supervision and being aware of their child’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 indentifying the root cause of the behavior and getting the education and counseling they need to change.

According to Cross, TVF&R has processed 63 fire-setting cases so far in 2013 within its 210-square-mile district.

“It keeps us very busy,” she said. “It’s challenging, and it’s a lot of work for everyone involved. We want to make sure that these kids get the assistance they need; therefore, it is extremely important that people contact us if they have concerns about any child misusing fire. We don’t want these situations to escalate.”

As an added resource, TVF&R has a hotline number that anyone can call to get in contact with an interventionist. The hotline number is 503-259-1408 or people may send an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..




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