Safety Program Hopes To Curb Deadly Fires | WOSU Radio

Safety Program Hopes To Curb Deadly Fires

Jun 20, 2016

So far this year, children have set four fires in Columbus-some deadly.

Listen to the story here.

In January, two adults were killed in a Franklinton fire started by kids playing with fireworks. Three days later, two young brothers died in an apartment fire they set in Franklinton.

In May, a two-year-old girl died in a fire lit by her sibling. And just last month, a grandfather was critically injured when his grandson set a fire on a bed on the east side. In cases where the children survived, they were referred to the Columbus Division of Fire's Juvenile Fire Setter program.

About twenty years ago, the city of Columbus bought what was then Bishop Wehrle High School on the south side. A small statue of St. Francis of Assisi still sits on the property.

Today, the campus houses the Division of Fire's Administration and Training Center. It's here that firefighters learn what to look for when they're trying to determine what started a fire.

Fire Captain Jeff Martin said investigators use a systematic approach and look for patterns starting from the least burned to the most burned area of the structure.

“We look at all the smoke patterns, all the burn patterns and high heat patterns, hose wash patterns. Everything in that fire structure has a story to tell us to help point us in the right direction,” Martin explained.

While hard data is difficult to come by, Martin said this year, there appears to be a spike in the number of house fires started by children. He says there's a certain pattern to that kind of blaze.

“They'll set fires in their closets, they'll set fires under their bed, on their beds or to their beds. Usually, they'll sneak away and set fires to somewhere that's hidden away,” Martin said.

When two little brothers playing with matches started a fire in their Franklinton apartment earlier this year, the consequences were deadly. Both of the boys died in the fire while their mother and baby brother escaped unharmed.

The mother later admitted to fire investigators that she had caught her five-year old playing with matches before.

Fire experts say parents, often embarrassed by the perceived stigma of their children playing with fire, can be reluctant to get help or think they can deal with the issue themselves.

For the past 20 years, longtime firefighter Rickey Scott has lead a program to deter children who start fires.

Scott said approximately 150 kids are referred to the Division's Juvenile Fire Setters program every year.

“We use some age-appropriate material. We sit down and we may have to use some animals in order to talk with them to get them to calm down and to open up. And then we talk about why. A lot of times, again, it's curiosity and accessibility,” Scott said.  

Scott said kids who start fires are difficult to categorize. But both Martin and Scott agree boys are more likely to start fires than girls. Scott said they do it for a variety of reasons.

“Whether it was boredom, whether it was anger, whether it was lashing out at being abused. It's just different things for different children,” Scott explained.

Arson investigator Captain Jeff Martin notes that even 4 and 5-year olds often associate flames with fun.

“They get a lot of exposure to bonfires or fires in fireplaces and fireworks and candles at birthday parties and they see a lot of times when fire is used as a fun thing and they start becoming curious with it and don't understand how quickly it can get out of control,” Martin said.  

Both Martin and Scott caution parents to keep matches and lighters out of sight, preferably in a lock box like a gun. A gun, Rickey Scott says has the potential to shoot six people, but a fire in an apartment building has the potential to hurt or kill many more.