Firefighter Arson: When Good Firefighters Go Bad

Late March of this year, two former volunteer firefighters in West Virginia were arrested in connection with arson fires. Landy Chapman, an 18-year-old probationary member of the Ona Volunteer Fire Department and Allen Black, a 19-year-old member of the Salt Rock Volunteer Fire Department were charged with a felony for setting fires on the lands of others, and a misdemeanor for calling in false alarms.

According to WSAZ in Ona, the pair would allegedly set or report fires, then respond to them, showing up to the scene in a personal vehicle. The state fire marshal’s office believes the pair is connected to at least six wildfires, one house fire, and possibly more. Both men were fired from their departments even before charges were filed. “If your own people are out here causing the issue and setting fires, that’s devastating to a fire department,” Deputy State Fire Marshal Jason Baltic told Firehouse.com.

True, and unfortunately, West Virginia isn’t the only state dealing with the issue.

A Rare, But Persistent Problem

Earlier that same month, two firefighters in Shelton, Connecticut were charged with setting a truck on fire. Greg Bomba, 45, a former fire captain and William Tortora, 57, both of Shelton, were charged with second-degree arson, second-degree reckless endangerment, second-degree criminal mischief and conspiracy to commit these crimes. Their motives were unclear.

Firefighter arson, while restricted to a small minority of firefighters, is still a frustrating and persistent phenomenon; one that fire departments are aware of, that has been studied, yet is still not often discussed. An extensive 36-page report on the subject from the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) notes that the problem has received more attention in recent years due to the Internet.

Although there’s no official national data collection system in place to help fully and accurately document the scope of the problem, a survey of news articles by the NVFC suggests that about 100 firefighters per year are arrested for arson.

The Impacts of Firefighter Arson

What is certain is the damage that firefighter arson afflicts on affected departments and the threat it poses to the reputation of the fire service. Generally, departments stung by such incidents may be faced with intense scrutiny from media, government officials and their local communities. The possibility of colleagues of the arsonist may have their own reputations damaged, and department leaders could come under fire. Recruitment and retention suffer, and the allocation of resources may also be affected.

No firefighter or department should have to suffer through defending themselves in such circumstances, especially following the betrayal of deep-seated personal and professional bonds. After all, we are called to put our lives on the line for each other. Simply stated – it cuts deep.

Profile of an Arsonist

Of course, the questions that most people – including the vast majority of firefighters – want to understand is: who are these people and why on earth would they do this? Let’s start with the archetypal profile of a firefighter arsonist. Does one even exist? That depends on who you ask.

The NVFC acknowledges that many previous reports have developed profiles to help give fire chiefs and investigators some idea of the possible characteristics and motivations of firefighter arsonists. But in the NVFC’s own extensive research and analysis, it states that, “It has become increasingly clear that many firefighter arsonists do not fit neatly into one profile.”

On the other hand, the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis unit put together a profile that detailed a potential arsonist and found it to be highly accurate when compared to the cases studied. Their profile identified a likely arsonist as being a white male between the ages of 17 to 26, with poor social skills. He may have been a product of a poor home environment where one or both parents were missing from his life. He may have had a poor relationship with his father (aggressive or hostile), while having an overprotective mother (Wikipedia, 2018).

What’s the Motivation?

But still the question is, “Why?”. What is it that drives individuals to risk their careers while destroying property and endangering the lives of others they are sworn to protect? This is a point of considerable debate with the crux of the question being, do they have a psychological compulsion to set fires or do they do it in response to some aspect of their social environment? As the NVSC explains, in the past, the knee-jerk reaction was to presume that there was just “something wrong” with all arsonists (often referred to as firebugs), that they were compelled by some form of pyromania – a psychological drive to set fires.

Later, evidence began to suggest that firefighter arsonists weren’t necessarily arsonists who became firefighters, but firefighters who became arsonists. It was theorized that their motives were rooted in excitement or thrill, and more specifically, wanting to be viewed as a hero for discovering or showing up at the scene of a fire to extinguish it.

Not Heroes…Zeroes.

Researchers Nolan Lewis and Helen Yarnell, who conducted groundbreaking research on the subject dating back to the 1950’s, developed this theory and dubbed it “vanity firesetting”.They speculated that these types of arsonists wanted to look good in front of their community, colleagues or special people. They longed to be liked, respected or admired by their friends, family or fire department, but lacked either the intelligence or skills to earn the respect they craved. In an often-quoted passage from Lewis and Yarnell’s studies, they said these are, “little men with grandiose social ambitions whose natural equipment dooms them to insignificance.”

Today, while Hero Syndrome remains a leading suspected motive in many cases of firefighter arson, there are a wide variety of causations, including everything from personal attacks to boredom, and even increased paychecks.

Prevention

Regardless of motives, prevention efforts to combat firefighter arson have continued to grow stronger. There is zero tolerance for such crimes in the fire service. While no policy is foolproof, criminal background checks to verify educational, financial and social security information are all increasingly more common and rigid in departments, as are having recruits sign affidavits that swear in writing that they have never been convicted or suspected of arson, and that they will not engage in acts of arson while with the department. At the least, this offers another layer of discouragement for any firefighter who might consider such a crime while helping protect departments from civil liability.

Americans Agree: Good Firefighters Still Far Outweigh the Bad

Despite the actions and poor choices of a few individuals, firefighters overall have widespread public support. A 2016 Harris Poll of America’s Most Prestigious Professions ranks firefighters as number 3, coming in behind Doctors and Scientists. As the NVFC states, “This positive public perception has been earned by centuries of firefighters whose good deeds, devotion and diligence have secured this reputation.”

For more information on firefighter arson, download the NVFC’s “Report on the Firefighter Arson Problem: Context, Considerations and Best Practices” at https://www.nvfc.org.

 

Wikipedia: The free encyclopedia. (2018, April 27). Firefighter arson. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firefighter_arson.

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