Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Burning Question

What motivates a person to start fires? Dr Theresa Gannon is the head of a new project that aims to answer this question and to develop a treatment programme for arsonists and fire-setters internationally.

A petty criminal is imprisoned for trying to kill a doctor and his family in an arson attack at their Belfast home. A teenager dresses up as ‘The Joker’ and sets fire to his Clondalkin school to teach staff a lesson for treating students as ‘sub-human’. A homeless man with a severe speech impediment is convicted of arson after he lights numerous fires around Dublin city “to get the upset out”. An alcoholic caretaker kills two promising young jockeys  - including Galway-born Jamie Kyne - in a fire attack fuelled by envy, anger and drugs.
These four incidences of arson - as diverse in motive as they are in severity of outcome - were reported recently in Irish newspapers, and they are only the tip of the iceberg. Irish fire fighters tackled over 12,000 ‘malicious’ fires in 2006 – more than half of these were in Dublin City. The following year this figures dropped to less than 5,000 but only because the breakdown on cause was not available from Dublin City Council.
The latest recorded crime figures confirm that arson attacks are steadily increasing. According to the Central Statistics Office, arson offences have risen year-on-year from about 1,400 in 2005 to more than 3,000 in 2009.
Yet, astonishingly, professionals hold very little knowledge of the types of arsonists who exist, or of their key characteristics and treatment needs. This is extremely worrying given that arsonists are highly likely to repeat their behaviour when released into the community. A widely cited Irish research paper on this subject estimates that at least 35 percent of known arsonists re-offend.
But in the UK, where deliberate fire-setting costs society in excess of £42 million every week, authorities are attempting to address this intervention deficit. A grant of more than £560,000 was recently awarded to Dr Theresa Gannon, a Chartered Forensic Psychologist and Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychology at the University of Kent, to develop and oversee the very first standardised treatment programme for fire-setters internationally.
With these Economic and Social Research Council funds, Dr Gannon, who has a long held academic interest in arson and fire setting, will fully examine the types of arsonists who exist and their treatment needs.
Using this information, she will then develop, implement and evaluate the very first specialised, standardised treatment programme for arsonists worldwide. Each stage of the treatment programme will be designed to build upon the previous one, and, taken together, the results will change the way in which both academics and practitioners view, conceptualise and treat this group.
Dr Gannon, whose grandfather hails from Mayo, is one of the world’s leading authorities in both male and female sexual offending. However, she has noticed that a significant number of these offenders also had fire-setting tendencies in their history.
Dr Theresa Gannon
“I was very curious about the fact that I was treating these people for their sexual offence but not necessarily for their fire-setting and that peaked my interested initially,” Dr Gannon tells Scope. “I realised that there was not much in the form of treatment protocols for arsonists or fire setters, certainly nothing standardised. Perhaps there are a handful of people with their own devised treatment plans for these offenders, normally in mental health settings, but there is nothing specific available.”
This conspicuous service gap was also recorded in a UK Government-funded survey in 2005 to evaluate interventions with arsonists and young fire-setters. The study found that most interventions were educational in nature and provided by Fire and Rescue Services for children and adolescents; few forensic NHS services provided specialist interventions for mentally disordered or learning disabled adult arsonists; and there was no provision by the Prison Service or Probation Areas for offenders serving prison or community sentences.
Dr Gannon’s research is funded for three years and will be conducted in four phases. Initially, her team will empirically validate the characteristics and deficits associated with personalities who deliberately set fires. This information will provide the groundwork for phase two – the development of a structured treatment programme for arsonists and fire-setters.
Armed with this treatment blueprint, 10 forensic psychologists and assistants in the UK will be enlisted to provide the intervention for well over 100 fire-setters. At present, the facilities that have agreed to take part in the pilot programme are secure prison establishments, but Dr Gannon says the intervention could also be introduced in mental health settings if they express an interest in participating.
Outcomes for the treatment group will then be compared to a matched group of fire-setters who don’t receive treatment. Finally, participants will be followed-up at a later date to gauge the sustained effectiveness of the treatment programme and its impact on fire-setting recidivism rates.
“Our objective is to develop a kind of manual that guides therapists through what they should be doing and who should go on the programme, as well as what we should be treating. Then we can assess how effective the programme is, relative to having no treatment at all, or more generic treatment which is typically what happens to fire-setters at present,” says Dr Gannon.
“One of the common traits that many people say characterises the fire-setters is mental disorder, however, we’re not sure how valid that is because there is an over-representation of mental disorder classifications as these people tend to get channelled towards those facilities.
“But I would say that arsonists and fire-setters are more likely to be male, the ratio of male to female fire-setters is estimated to be 6 to 1. There are a number of different motives as to why someone might set a fire but the one feature that seems to set them apart from other offenders is their inability to communicate or express themselves, or their anger, directly. A violent person would approach his or her victim directly and use a knife, for example, whereas using fire is a very indirect way of communicating your anger towards someone or that you need help from society.
“Obviously there are many different types of fire-setters - it’s a very heterogeneous group - but there is a sub-type who are particularly interested in fire. I’d say fire is an innate interest for all of us, so I’m talking about someone who is very inappropriately interested in fire. Perhaps they gain a lot of sensory reinforcement from the fire; intense pleasure, gratification or release at the time of lighting fires. The term is pyromania and the diagnosis is extremely rare and only when certain strict criteria are met.
“Certainly, developing a treatment plan for arsonists and fire setters is going to be quite challenging and new. We need to establish, for example, which types of fire-setters need treatment. Do we give fire-setting treatment to a young man who has just set fire to a notice board in a hospital or a prison, but the majority of his other offences have nothing to do with fire-setting? The answer, perhaps, it that it is not appropriate for them, and this is what the first part of our research will be concerned with: identifying which factors really exist in those who show very problematic or repetitive fire-setting and are they different to offenders who don’t fire set? From there we can develop a suite of criteria for who should be on the programme,” says Dr Gannon.
Towards the end of the first year Dr Ganon and her team will begin selecting people for the treatment programme and the intervention will be provided over the following two years. The programme involves 25 weeks of group therapy and, in parallel, the participating psychologists will provide individual support work to ensure that each person works on their own particular areas of need.
“This flexible approach is essential,” Dr Gannon explains. “In any treatment programme, the people running it need to be experienced enough to know that one size does not fit all; they must develop a formulation for each person in the treatment group - an individualised treatment plan.
“In our third year, we will be following up their treatment progress and seeing whether there have been any improvements since the programme ended and whether any of these improvements have actually stuck with them.
“This will tell us whether or not the new treatment is effective for meeting the needs of arsonists and how we should deal with arsonists in the future so that we can stop them from re-offending.”
Several international studies have suggested a wide range of recidivism levels for arsonists, depending on the methodology and sample used. A 2006 study using a criminal justice sample of 34 court reports from arson cases in England and Wales between 1999 and 2003 found two-thirds of arsonists (67.6 percent) had a previous history of fire setting, although not necessarily a conviction. Fire-setting behaviour among the sample had begun as early as seven years of age.
A study of fire-setters in the south west of Ireland in 1987 examined a non-random convenience sample (n=54) of fire-setters from prisons and psychiatric hospitals in Ireland. It found that 35 percent of the sample were recidivists, and 11 percent engaged in repeated episodes of fire setting. The recurrent fire-setters were all lower socioeconomic status males, all of whom had a psychiatric diagnosis.
Meanwhile, a study in West Germany of convicted arsonists found that recidivism rates ranged from only 4 to 10 percent over a ten-year period.
Another fundamental difficulty exists in attempting to estimate the prevalence of deliberate fire-setting acts in society, as not all perpetrators register on the criminal justice radar or even attract the attention of the police force.
“The reason we use the term fire-setting at times is because often you encounter someone who is setting problematic fires in hospitals or in their cells and it never gets to the courts, so it never gets counted as an arson offence for one reason or another.
“In the UK, you might get over 100,000 incidents of deliberate fire setting recorded by the fire service in a year, but only half of those would be recorded as arson by the police, because they have a different burden of proof or other facts might take precedence, such as a stolen car that is destroyed by fire would be recorded as car theft, not arson. In fact only about 8 percent of deliberate fire settings acts will come before the court and approximately 2,500 people in a year would be convicted for arson, in England and Wales.
 “So our treatment programme will not only be targeting people who have been convicted of arson, we will also be including people who may have fire setting in their offence or in their background and is deemed to be a problem, but they may not have been convicted of it.”
The Arson Prevention Bureau in the UK has compiled some disturbing statistics: every week, arson attacks result in 2,213 deliberately started primary fires, 63 injuries, 2 deaths and a cost to society of over £42 million. In the last decade, there have been around 2.4 million deliberate fires in the UK, resulting in 1,250 deaths and 32,000 injuries. A similar breakdown is not available for intentional fire setting or arson in Ireland.
Despite the seriousness of the crime, arson has traditionally received little attention from academics. Dr Gannon admits her surprise that a research project such as hers was not commissioned years ago.
“When you see the enormous cost to our society that arson produce, in terms of cost to the economy and the incalculable cost to human welfare - loss of life or injury. I’m surprised a formal and specific treatment programme hasn’t been devised already. “The fact is, the recidivism rates for arsonists are very similar to those of sexual offenders, but no one would ever say to a sexual offender, we’re not going to treat your specific problem but we can offer you something general. But that’s what we’re doing for fire-setters. If we stand any chance of tackling this problem and of helping these people we have to do develop an specialised and effective treatment programme.”

Australia’s burning

Every hour of every day in Australia at least one arson fire is lit. The deliberate setting of bushfires is one of the most costly crimes committed in Australia, yet police, fire-fighters and researchers agree that little is known about the motivation of arsonists and how to tackle the crime.
Earlier this year, at the first conference of its kind in Australia, experts across several disciplines gathered to discuss developing a plan to cut down the number of deliberately lit fires.
Prof James R P Ogloff
Addressing the two-day meeting, Prof James R P Ogloff, director of the Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science at Monash University’s School of Psychology and Psychiatry in Victoria, revealed his plans to develop a comprehensive research project on the psychology of fire setting, including the validation of assessment, intervention, and risk prediction strategies. 
He stressed that the task will be a tough one: “It is generally accepted at least 30% of arsonists will go on to subsequently set fires. Some fire setters, light hundreds of fires over time. Given the nature of their fire setting, such individuals have a great deal of difficulty simply refraining from thinking about and setting fires. 
“An area that requires more concerted research is how we can identify which fire setters are at greatest risk for re-offending. We need to know more about risk factors for those who repeatedly set bushfires.”

Profiling arsonists

Although deliberate fire setting is one of the least understood and infrequently studied problematic behaviours, data gathered over the previous years have increased our knowledge surrounding various aspects of the arsonist.
Dr Tom O’Connor, renowned comparative criminologist and Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Austin Peay State University, Tennessee, summarises the emerging profiling characteristics for arsonists as follows:
AGE: 10-14 (26 percent), majority under 18 (51 percent) if adult, late 20s, never over 35 if adult, revenge or profit motive

SEX: 9 out of 10 times (90 percent) a male; if female, revenge type

RACE: 3 out of 4 times (75 percent) a white; black (20 percent) of time if first-timer;
CLASS: majority from lower to working class; middle class if vandalism or excitement

IQ: vast majority subnormal (70-90) with 22 percent in retarded range (below 70), rare genius

FAMILY: absent or abusive father, history of emotional problems with family/mother

SCHOOL: learning problems and usually held back a grade in school, normally in 10th grade; younger (grades 6-8) if vandalism

PEERS: social misfit, interpersonal problems with opposite sex, appears physically and emotionally weak compared to peers

WORK: usually chooses subservient position and then resents it (both ambivalent and resentful toward authority-repressed); unemployed if vandal, excite, or profit

CRIMINAL HISTORY: numerous status offences as juvenile, property crimes, almost all have arrest records

DRUG/ALCOHOL: no problem, but involvement with

MENTAL: lack of remorse may appear as psychopathy, but more typically result of obsessive-compulsive disassociative trance-like state during fire setting

ARREST: majority remain at crime scene except revenge, conceal, profit types; some attempt suicide in lockup; most easily confess through cooperation.

Types of arson 

ARSON FOR REVENGE (41 percent) - precipitating factor is a real or imagined affront that occurred months or years ago; attack is focused on individual rivals, a business chain, schools, or some facilities connected with offender

ARSON FOR EXCITEMENT (30 percent) - precipitating factor is boredom, (sexual) thrill cycle, or need for attention; attack is focused on large or outdoor targets, like parks, construction sites, arenas, as well as residential areas

ARSON FOR VANDALISM (7 percent) - precipitating factor is family disturbance or peer pressure; attack if usually focused on educational facility as well as residences and outdoors



  1. is there anywhere for a mentaly ill arsonist to go besides prison?

  2. Hi, that's a very intersting question. I suppose it depends on the country where the offence takes place and what facilities are available there. Certainly, if a court finds that the defendant's behaviour is linked to a psychosis, they may be sentenced to a secure mental health facility where they will receive psychiatric treatment. But that doesn't always happen. Many end up in the mainstream prison population and may receive little or no therapy for their illness. From my reading, there are greater success rates in addressing compulsive behaviour in child and teen arsonists (using cognitive behavioural therapy, for example) than in adult offenders (in this group, treatment usually consists of medication and ongoing psychotherapy).