Training >> Browse Articles >> Miscellaneous


Understanding The Enemy: Profiles and Motivations of an Arsonist

Kendra Weikman | - For sources, see Editor's note.

Serial Arson

Arsonists who set fires repeatedly are referred to as serial fire setters.

The NCAVC classifies compulsive fire setting as “mass, spree or serial.”

The serial arsonist is involved in three or more separate fire setting episodes with a characteristic emotional cooling off period between fires. This period may last days weeks or even years.

Serial arson is the most serious type of arson due to apparent random selection of victims and unpredictable gaps between incidents. Furthermore, a serial arson is not a separate or distinct motive for fire setting. It is instead a pattern of fire setting frequently encountered in revenge, excitement or extremist-motivated arson

Serial arsonists often create a climate of fear in entire communities. Community leaders tend to compound the problem by pressuring law enforcement agencies to identify and quickly apprehend the fire setter. Often the arsonist evades apprehension for months while investigators become increasing frustrated by the lack of experience in handling these baffling cases

This type of arson usually involves a disorganized crime scene, and physical evidence is often present. The offender frequently uses available materials found at the scene and carries the source of ignition with them.

The typical offender in this category is usually male. His age is generally younger than the single event arsonist. He tends to be a loner, but a secondary party may have knowledge of his activities. He will tend to be minimally educated and an underachiever. He generally has poor interpersonal relationships and is socially inadequate. Often he is unemployed and if he has an employment history it is erratic and involves little or no skill.

Serial arsonists often have a history of substance abuse and a history of police contact/arrests for minor nuisance offenses. The offender walks to the scene of the fire and generally lives within one mile of the crime scene. He is very likely familiar with the crime scene and could justify his presence in the area.

It is important to analyze the cluster centers of fire activity. The tighter the cluster the closer to the area of significance to the offender.

A subtype of the serial arsonist is the extremist serial arsonist. Research suggests that this offender is usually well-educated and above average in intelligence. He is highly mobile and focuses his attacks on specific targets. He uses sophisticated incendiary devices. The crime scenes is organized and there is little or no physical evidence.


Editors Note
Sources: Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Fire Incident Reporting System, Crime Classification Manual By John E Douglas, Ann W. Burgess, Allen G. Burgess and Robert K Ressler Lexington Books 1992, New World Encyclopedia