Deliberate fire lighting by children and teenagers is a growing problem in Western Australia (WA) and one that can have potentially devastating consequences, particularly during the bushfire season.
In 2014-2015 there were 371 suspicious or deliberately lit fires attributed to children or teenagers. Another 72 fires were lit accidentally as a result of children playing with fire lighting items.
To tackle this serious issue, the Department of Fire and Emergency Services’ (DFES) relies increasingly on its Juvenile and Family Fire Awareness program (JAFFA) and JAFFA Support Officers, who are gearing up for another busy season ahead.
JAFFA is aimed at children and teenagers aged six to 16 who have been involved in lighting fires and works to reduce the number of avoidable fires. Created 26 years ago to help young people understand fire safety and the legal implications of lighting fires, it is a free and confidential service.
Children can be referred to the program by their parents or through various other agencies.
DFES supports and facilitates the program, however the 48 JAFFA Support Officers currently involved all give up their own time to provide this important service. They include career and volunteer firefighters from across metropolitan and regional areas of WA.
Station Officer Rob Warren from Kiara Fire Station has been involved in the JAFFA program for the last five years and has dealt with over 14 cases. Rob said he got involved because he was looking for a new challenge and a way to make a difference.
“The opportunity came up to do a JAFFA training course and I thought it would be a good chance to get involved with juvenile fire setters,” Rob said.
“By intervening early it’s possible we can prevent them from becoming a cause of fires in the future, and avoid the destruction and loss that those fires can bring to the community.”
Rob said that there are a range of reasons why young people may play with fire.
“While it is natural for children to be curious about fire, that interest can sometimes develop into something more dangerous,” he said.
“For the older children or teenagers it is often the result of peer pressure and a little bit of curiosity to see what happens, while in younger kids it might be curiosity or boredom.
“When they start playing with fire or lighting fires deliberately it becomes a real problem with potentially serious consequences.”
To tackle this fire lighting behaviour JAFFA Support Officers such as Rob meet with the child and parents in the family home, and tailor an education program to the specific needs of each child.
This could include watching a DVD that shows the consequences of playing with fire, discussing fire behaviour or problems of peer pressure.
Rob said the program teaches young people the dangers of playing with fire.
“It educates them about the possible outcomes of playing with fire and the impact it can have on their life, such as receiving a criminal conviction or being severely burnt.
“Most children understand what they have done is wrong and generally their parents and carers are very receptive to the program.”
DFES Director Community Engagement Suellen Flint said young people often do not realise or understand the lifelong consequences associated with their actions.
“Just one moment of reckless fire lighting behaviour could spark a fire, destroying the homes and livelihoods of dozens of people as well as causing serious injury,” Suellen said.
“That one moment often remains with the child throughout their entire life as they deal with the emotional, work and relationship costs of their behaviour.
“This includes the legal consequences of fire lighting and the possibility of a criminal conviction that may affect future employment opportunities.
“Beyond these impacts, children involved in fire lighting are putting themselves at direct risk of being burnt, suffering serious and permanent injury.”
During 2014-2015 there were 149 young people referred to the JAFFA program, with the majority of those referrals coming from WA Police.
Notably, 59 referrals were received in December and January, a 383 per cent increase compared with the same period in 2013-2014. Most were male and on average aged between 12 and 14.
Although the statistics on deliberate fire lighting are frightening, Suellen said the JAFFA program continues to prove its effectiveness.
“JAFFA has proven to be highly valuable in supporting parents who have gone through the program with their children,” she said.
“It gives guidance to parents by providing them with the support and tools they need to continue managing their child’s fire lighting behaviour, and it creates a supportive environment for the child to learn and adopt new behaviours.
“Instances of further fire lighting by children and teens participating in the program remain low. It’s encouraging that 92 per cent of children involved in the program had not been involved in any further fire lighting within six months of completing the program.”
Most young people who have participated in the JAFFA program were involved in a one-off incident and had no previous history of fire lighting.
JAFFA has received a number of awards, including the 2013 Constable Care Child Safety Award and 2012 Resilient Australia Award for WA..