Experts say it’s impossible to identify firefighters with a penchant for arson, but the problem is widespread enough to prompt a program to educate fire chiefs about it.
In Pennsylvania, state fire marshal David Klitsch put together the Hero to Zero Firefighter Arsonist Program, which debuted with two pilot presentations last month. He developed it in response to a series of arsons two years ago involving firefighters in Carbon, Monroe and Schuylkill counties.
“Police asked if there was a program or signs to look for — how to deal with it, how to prevent it,” Klitsch said. “I looked into it and there really wasn’t a quality program out there.”
Instruction on firefighter arson is part of basic training at the State Fire Academy in Lewistown, but not all firefighters in the state take the course.
Klitsch’s three-hour program explains motives that drive firefighter pyromaniacs and helps identifies those who might be prone to arson.
John McArdle, a fire chief in Carbon County, called the course “more of a wake-up call.”
“It’s always been on my mind, but it became quite evident that we had to take a proactive stand,” McArdle said.
Firefighter arsonists typically start small before moving to bigger targets, and often set fires because they’re bored or have psychological problems, Klitsch said.
In April, a Cambria County volunteer firefighter pleaded guilty to setting five fires. Police said he said he started the blazes because there were no good fire calls in the area and he was looking for excitement.
Also, 19-year-old Pitcairn firefighter was ordered to undergo psychiatric evaluation after he allegedly told police he set two trash cans on fire last month in the Pittsburgh suburb.
The 19-year-old had been accepted into the Pitcairn ranks despite getting a bad recommendation from his previous department, Pitcairn fire Chief Chris Fouser said. More than half the Pitcairn members wanted to give the young man “a second chance.”
Klitsch encourages fire departments to conduct background checks, but acknowledges smaller fire companies can’t afford that luxury.
“All you need to do is fill out an application,” he said. “It just seems like the volunteer fire service is just happy for anyone to come in and help.”
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,
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