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Report details why some firefighters set fires

By Sally Voth -- svoth@nvdaily.com

NEW MARKET -- If found guilty, two New Market Volunteer Fire Department firefighters charged with starting a number of blazes in the region will join a little-studied group -- firefighters who are firestarters.

Michael Allen Bell, 18, of 2576 Quicksburg Road, Quicksburg, and Ryan John Frank Sullivan, 20, who lived at the New Market firehouse, were arrested last Saturday at the facility where they both volunteered.

They face numerous counts of arson in relation to a three-week outbreak of blazes in barns and abandoned houses in northern Rockingham and southern Shenandoah counties.

The pair worked some of the fire scenes, Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy C. Carter said.

"Based on the information we have at this point, their intent was to cause disruption to Shenandoah County and Rockingham specifically with regard to the fire and rescue responses to these scenes," he said.

The U.S. Fire Administration released "Special Report: Firefighter Arson" in January 2003. One of its preparers was Hollis Stambaugh, director of System Planning Corp.'s Center for Public Protection in Arlington.

"It's a subject that has not been studied very much," she said in a phone interview this week. "It's a sensitive subject. Many departments out there won't admit, or certainly not publicize, when a firefighter is involved in setting a fire."

One of the most high-profile cases involved a former Glendale, Calif., chief arson investigator about 20 years ago.

"That was really phenomenal," Stambaugh said. "That shook everybody up."

According to the special report, that arsonist, John Orr, received a life sentence for the fire deaths of four people, including a toddler. He was suspected in many more fires and even wrote a novel about a firefighter arsonist.

Still, the vast majority of firefighters don't become firebugs.

"One should not think that every fire department has an arsonist who's operating on the Q-T," Stambaugh said.

More firefighter arsonists come from volunteer agencies rather than career staff, but that could be because they make up the higher percentage of firefighters, she said. Or, it could be because as it gets more difficult to recruit and retain volunteers, standards sometimes slip, Stambaugh said.

"Probably under those circumstances, there's a little less scrutiny of certain things that may otherwise raise red flags," she said.

As fire prevention improves, the number of fire calls first responders get goes down, which might lead to an arsonist to think, "this is not why I joined," Stambaugh said.

"That sometimes is what is a motivation for setting fires in these abandoned or unoccupied buildings," she said.

Besides boredom, a main motivation is the desire to be a hero, said Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner Ed Mann, who contributed to Stambaugh's report.

"They want to be the first there," he said. "They want to be seen by the public as being a hero. Very rarely is it because of emotional issues or psychological issues."

Often what attracts people to the firefighting profession is the same thing that can drive a small minority to be arsonists.

"People are drawn to the occupation or vocation of being a firefighter in many cases by the characteristics of fires," said Allen Sapp, professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Central Missouri. "It can be an exciting job. It has a lot of adrenaline flow in it. It can be dangerous. There's lots of chances there for personal recognition. What we find then is that a very small number of individuals who move into that position don't get everything they need out of the position in terms of meeting their personal needs ... and so, they help nature along."

Some firefighter arsonists are motivated by profit, said Sapp, who consulted on the U.S. Fire Administration report. This would apply to volunteers who get a small fee for every fire call they go on.

Sapp also discussed the desire of some arsonists to be recognized or be a hero.

"Now, the recognition may just be from friends, fellow firefighters ... and in some cases it only needs to be a self-recognition -- 'I'm a worthwhile person,'" he said. "'I did something good today. If it hadn't been for me, that whole building would've burned down. If it hadn't been for me, that person may have died.'"

After several Pennsylvania firefighters were arrested for arson earlier this decade, members of Mann's staff met with one of the fire departments involved.

"The individual that they arrested was the last person in their fire department that you would've [suspected] of such a thing," Mann said.

He was at every training class and fundraiser and went on every call -- in other words, "a firefighter's firefighter," Mann said.

A task force was created and eventually led to the passage of a law in Pennsylvania that requires new firefighters to undergo a background investigation or sign an affidavit swearing they'd never been arrested for arson or arson-related crimes, Mann said.

But, the law's not perfect. For instance, it only applies to new recruits, and to crimes committed in Pennsylvania by adults, he said.

Both paid and volunteer firefighters in Shenandoah County must undergo background checks, County Fire and Rescue Chief Gary Yew said.

Pennsylvania is once again dealing with a rash of arsons, Mann said, with 28 since the beginning of the year in the Coatesville area. An assistant fire chief is among the suspects.

"One of the things that we discovered in talking to [System Planning Corp.], they found that worldwide [there are a] number of public-safety officers -- not just firefighters, but cops, EMTs, paramedics [involved in arsons]," Mann said. "This is a significant issue worldwide."

It can "destroy" a volunteer department, Mann said, especially if it depends on community financial support.

That's a concern felt by New Market Fire Chief Matt Hughes, who took the reins about six months ago following the ouster of the former chief and several top officers in an embezzlement scandal.

"I hope we didn't lose any [community] trust that we regained," he said earlier this week.

While often firefighters don't want to think one of their own could be setting fires, there are signs, Mann said.

"You go from being really quiet to extremely busy, and you're not able to easily tell what the cause of that fire was," he said. "You need to give some thought to looking internally and you've got to start looking for who's making every call you have. In my opinion, anybody who's arrested and convicted for the crime of arson should have the book thrown at them, but if you're a public-safety officer, and you're arrested and convicted for the crime of arson, you ought to have the whole bookcase thrown at you."




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