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Officials seek to stop juvenile firebugs

COVINGTON - There were 11 fires reported to the Newton County Fire Service last year that were attributed to juvenile fire setters, according to Lt. Cydnie Taylor, fire safety educator for the department.

Those children were between the ages of 5 and 12 and were both male and female, black and white. It's a common problem throughout the U.S. and Georgia firefighters and fire safety educators are seeking ways to stop it, Taylor said.

Her statistics are frightening:

· Children set more than 35,000 fires annually - approximately 8,000 of those are set in homes.

· 87 percent of people who die in fires set by children are under 18.

· These fires have resulted in 700 deaths, 3,500 injuries and $2 billion in property loss.

· 50 percent of all arson arrests come from the juvenile population, and it is the crime with the highest rate of juvenile involvement. More than half of these children are under the age of 15; nearly 7 percent are children younger than 10.

"We're trying to come up with the best way to approach juvenile fire setters because we don't want it to become an epidemic," she said. "We don't consider it 'playing.' We're trying to change the mind set of how people view it."

Common myths Taylor has heard expressed are:

· "Playing with fire is a stage they'll grow out of."

· "Don't all children play with fire?"

· "Punishing or scaring the children by showing them burn victims will make them stop."

· "When they get burned, they will stop setting fires!"

Taylor said studies show that none of these statements is true, but rather if there's no intervention, 80 percent of juvenile fire setters will do it again.

Her mission is to intervene by educating both young children and their families.

Taylor said that often juveniles start fires out of curiosity, boredom or ignorance of the consequences.

"The other main reason is negligence of parents in not putting away fire tools and the parent themselves not being educated," she said. "That's what I've run into here in Newton County, and that's what I've been trying to work on."

Taylor recalled a local incident at an apartment complex in which two siblings, a 3- and a 5-year-old, used a cigarette lighter to set a bed on fire while their mother was in it asleep.

"It was in the middle of the day and the mother had restricted the kids to staying in the bedroom and left her cigarettes and lighter on the nightstand. All the children had to play with was their clothing and shoes and she was asleep in the bed," Taylor said. "It was just by the grace of God they got out of the apartment. A gentleman there was able to get the bedding out of the room and get the kids and mother out. That could easily have been four fatalities in that one bedroom, plus the apartment house."

Taylor said the incident really drove home to her how easily a fire could start with only a cigarette lighter.

"They were just sitting at the bottom of that bed and caught the comforter on fire," she said.

She said many people believe if a lighter is "child resistant," that a child can't use it, but that's not so. They figure it out. Also, she pointed out that there are many novelty lighters on the market that have no safety devices on them at all. Children play with them and before you know it have started a fire without having any idea that the device is not a toy.

Also, she cautioned that matches and cigarette lighters aren't the only fire tools that are readily available in homes - the stove, the microwave, gasoline, space heaters and candles are high on her list of things that parents should teach their children to stay away from.

"Candles are the third largest cause of house fires," Taylor cautioned, adding that they should never be left burning unattended and not only should children be kept away from them, but pets, as well.

"I go into houses all the time and space heaters are crammed in corners. Any heat source needs to have at least 3 feet of space around it," she said.

Children need to know they should stay 3 feet away from such heaters. Not only can they be burned, but they can throw things into them, causing a fire.

There are, however, children who are problem fire setters and Taylor intervenes with these situations by going into homes and teaching both parents and children.

These juveniles are sometimes identified when it has been discovered that a child is responsible for a fire where the NCFS has responded; sometimes a neighbor will call and say they've observed a child playing with fire; and sometimes even a parent will call and say, "I've noticed my child is setting fires. I'm scared. What do I need to do?"

"I've seen a couple of severe cases where 3- and 4-year-olds have been on their third or fourth fire," she said. One woman called and said her child had started eight fires and she needed help.

Taylor said when she visits the homes of children who have been identified as fire setters, she determines the severity of the problem, and if she thinks it can be solved through education, she teaches them about the consequences of their actions and shows instructional DVDs. If the problem is severe, she refers them to mental health counseling.

She said she does not use scare tactics, but uses logical instruction to show the child the potential dangers of their behavior.

Taylor is hopeful that concern for this problem will spread and other agencies - mental health, social services, law enforcement Juvenile Justice and the school system - will assist her in identifying those who need fire safety instruction.

For more information, Taylor can be reached at 770-784-2116.