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Inside the Mind of the Serial Arsonist

Inside the Mind of the Serial Arsonist

Kayla Baxter,

November 18, 2009

Profiling the Serial Arsonist

The serial arsonist is remarkably similar to the serial killer – according to the FBI’s psychological profile, they both are loners, who have difficulties cultivating and staying in relationships. They have spotty work history, and are often alcoholics, and often have disabilities or skin disorders.

There is little consensus among researchers about what causes the psychopathy behind serial criminals, but one thing is agreed upon- that there is no successful way to treat such individuals. Dr. Kent Kiehl and Dr. Robert Hare, two of the world’s leading investigators in psychopathy, were recently interviewed by John Seabrook in the November 10, 2008 issue of the New Yorker, and their work on criminals is making huge strides in the industry. What we in the fire service can learn from their studies, we can apply to serial arsonists.

Dr. Kiehl’s main approach to investigating psychopathy is to use MRI technology to scan prison inmates’ brains in hopes of finding a treatment. He also uses a twenty-item diagnostic checklist called the Psychopathy Checklist that measures the level of psychosis, which was developed by Hare. The checklist has been categorized into three variations now- one for juveniles, one for older convicted criminals, and one designed for the general population – the “screening” version. It costs $263 and has been translated into 20 different languages. Kiehl is focused mainly on collecting data to try and treat the mental disorder.

Don't Let Criminals Get Away

Hare, on the other hand, is more focused on warning society of the mental disorder that costs devastating amounts of lives, money, and property every year. Hare has published two books on the subject, to attempt to teach people how to recognize the symptoms of a psychopath. He writes, “For your own physical, psychological, and financial well-being it is crucial that you know how to identify the psychopath.” Interestingly, the most agreeable profession for psychopaths is in business. In business, “the ruthlessness, lack of social conscience, and single-minded devotion to success,” all hallmarks of the average psychopath, are considered desirable traits.

Investigators can use this profiling information when at a fire scene. Look for evidence of lack of remorse, thrill-seeking, impulsivity that could be consistent with the traits of psychopaths. Use your gut instincts. According to a survey conducted by psychologists, one in three mental-health professionals, after interviewing a psychopath, report feeling “an involuntary skin-crawling sensation that may be an ancient intra-species predator-response system.” Our instincts are still alive and well, so use them and trust them.

Unfortunately, volunteer firefighters are the primary model for firefighters-gone-arsonist because there is less scrutiny when they are hired on. These types of arsonists set the fire and then become the hero- report it, evacuate the building, then watch at the sidelines or dive into the fire for excitement. They are getting inadvertent and warped attention by experiencing the fire.