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Firesetters kick the habit with the help of firefighters

The Orlando Sentinel

May 31, 2011

As the photos of burn victims filled the screen in front of him, Patrick Lawhorne stared intently and realized just how lucky he was.

The Orlando teenager’s fascination with fire came to a head recently when he used gasoline to ignite a blaze.

“I burned a hole in my neighbor’s fence,” 16-year-old Patrick said.

After attending a Juvenile Firesetters program at the Orlando Fire Department, Patrick knows he has at least two reasons to consider himself lucky: He wasn’t hurt and his neighbor did not report the fire.

Patrick’s mother, Eileen Lawhorne, sought out the program to nip the problem in the bud.

She learned about it from a coworker whose husband is a firefighter.

“Truthfully, we should have done it a while ago,” she said.

Others attending the program on a recent evening were ordered by a judge to be there, including an 11-year-old who set a fire in a school bathroom and a 13-year-old who started a 30-acre brush fire.

Children set half of all fires

Juvenile Firesetters is a program offered in communities across the nation to teach children the dangers — and the consequences — of playing with fire.

Fires set by juveniles are the second-leading cause of all residential deaths and the leading cause of home deaths among children, according to the United States Fire Administration.

About a third of the victims of child-set fires are the children themselves.

Children set half of all fires, the agency says. Of the juvenile firesetters, 40 percent are under 5 and 70 percent are under 10.

Last month, a 3-year-old playing with a lighter started a fire that destroyed a mobile home in the Sha-De-Land mobile home park in DeLand.

Even at that age, the parents are encouraged to bring the child to Juvenile Firesetters, said Jill Stemmerman, fire marshal with the DeLand Fire Department.

“We have videos that are age-specific,” Stemmerman said. “We try not to terrify them.”

Stemmerman has been running that program in DeLand for 10 years and has not had one parent voluntarily bring their child to the program.

She has worked to force children to attend.

“If I think it [the fire] was malicious, I pretty much don’t give them a choice.”

She works with school counselors, the juvenile-justice system, the Florida Department of Children and Families — whatever it takes — to get the children into the program.

Budget cuts put programs at risk

While it is an important program, it competes for government dollars just like everything else.

It was eliminated in Seminole County because of budget cuts, said Lt. Paula J. Ritchey.

“We really miss having it,” she said.

“There have been budget cuts at fire departments across the state,” said Gerri Penney, community education coordinator with Palm Beach County Fire Rescue, who is involved in Juvenile Firesetters on a national level. “Usually they cut the fire-prevention budget first.”

Budget restraints are why Orlando fire District Chief Dave Haley, commander of the Arson Bomb Division, and Lt. Trent Campbell, a member of the Arson Squad, conduct Juvenile Firesetters classes at the Orlando Fire Department.

Both volunteer their time. They say it is that important.

Their department is part of the Orange/Osceola Juvenile Firesetter Intervention Network, although juveniles do not have to live in those counties to attend the classes.

The majority of the kids attending his classes are boys and most are teenagers, Haley said. The youngest child he had in one of his classes was 7.

Families encouraged to attend

Participants are encouraged to bring siblings, other family members and even friends to the classes and that often happens.

But during the most recent class at OFD, two of the five boys taking the class attended alone and the other three, including Patrick, brought only their moms. Mothers are most likely to attend with their children, Haley said.

A 14-year-old who started a fire in the woods was brought by his mother, who promptly left when she learned it was not mandatory that she stay with her child.

Statistics are hard to come by in Florida. While some individual departments kept statistics on fires set by children, only recently has a statewide database been constructed to begin compiling data from all fire departments, Penney said.

While Penney has seen an uptick in attendance at Juvenile Firesetter programs, she is not sure that it indicates an increase in fires. It’s just as likely caused by more awareness of the program and the fact that many fire departments are branching out to team with other agencies that deal with juveniles, such as what is being done in DeLand.

After hearing over and over again that the maximum sentence for arson is 30 years in prison, Patrick said his days of playing with fire are over.

“I learned a lot about fire safety,” Patrick said. “I like the way it was presented.”

Patrick enjoyed the program, even called it “cool,” but he says he won’t be back.

A service of YellowBrix, Inc.

© 2009, YellowBrix, Inc.


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