Transforming fear to respect: Program helps youths to regard fire as a tool, not a toy

The boy was in fourth grade when he noticed a parent’s lighter sitting out on the counter. He knew what the device could do. He had used one previously while trying to set fire to leaves, sticks and a Lego toy.

This time, he applied the flame to the surface of a piece of foam, similar to Styrofoam. Afterward he dropped water on it. He wanted to hear it sizzle.

Fortunately, the boy’s parents caught him before their home — and their son — were harmed, Tina Gerola, fire and life safety specialist for the Superstition Fire & Medical District, said during an interview.

The youngster was one of two students Ms. Gerola helped to counsel in 2014 as part of the fire district’s Youth Firesetter Program. It helps parents and the fire district delve into a child’s possible motivations for starting a fire and then determine how to treat and counsel the child, Ms. Gerola said.

Most participants are children sent from the county court system, she said, adding she had not worked through the court with a child from Apache Junction.

Ms. Gerola checks the child’s progress at 30 days and again at 60 days.

“At 60 days, we teach them to come to our side of the fire,” she said. “They spend time with the fire crews. They roll hoses and clean fire trucks. We tell them, ‘You know better now.’ It’s an important time for bonding.”

“For many kids, fire is a stress-reliever,” Ms. Gerola said. “Most firesetters are curious, they just want to see what happens. Fire is powerful, it’s intriguing.”

Just last month, a 7-year-old boy playing with a lighter was responsible for a first-alarm fire that displaced three families, including his own, and caused an estimated $130,000-$150,000 damage to the homes, according to Dave Montgomery, the fire district’s assistant fire chief and public information officer.

The boy’s parents declined participation in the firesetter program, Ms. Gerola said in an e-mailed response to questions.

Juvenile firesetters ages 8-18 could be prosecuted in a Pinal County court, Tiffany Davila, public information officer for the Pinal County Attorney’s Office, said in an e-mailed response to questions.

“We have no jurisdiction over kids under 8 years of age. Arson is a felony. Reckless burning is a misdemeanor. A reckless burn could go to diversion depending on the facts, but it probably wouldn’t. A juvenile who is adjudicated delinquent would be placed on probation. If it is a very serious offense and the juvenile has a criminal history, they may be placed on intensive probation. The Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections is a possibility,” Ms. Davila said in her e-mail.

The court will “generally place the child on probation,” Ms. Davila said.

“The Juvenile Probation Department may impose specialized consequences. If a firestarter program is available, it is ordered,” she said.

The parents of a juvenile firesetter who is found guilty in the Pinal County Juvenile Court are liable for up to $10,000, Ms. Davila said.

Educating youngsters
To demystify fire, Ms. Gerola presents a fire-education program to all the schools in the district’s coverage area, which extends from about McDowell Road to the north, Meridian Road to the west, Elliot Road to the south and Mountain Road to the east, as well as some communities east of Gold Canyon, according to its district map on the SFMD website: http://www.ajfire.org/uploads/District_Map.pdf.

The hour-long program is presented during an assembly in which all the students in a specified grade level are gathered in one location, such as the gym or activity center, she said.

The presentations vary depending on the grade, but all include meeting with firefighters and a chance to inspect a fire truck up close, she said.

The focus for the youngest students — those in pre-kindergarten through second grades — is to reduce their fear level in case of a fire.

“‘We don’t hide, we go outside,’ that’s what we teach the youngsters,” Ms. Gerola said during the interview. “During a fire, we often find children hiding under their beds. They’re hiding from the fire and the firefighters.”

To reduce a child’s trepidation at seeing a firefighter in his or her fire gear — which can include a helmet with face mask, oversized protective coat and pants and oxygen tank and firefighting tools — the children first meet a crew of firefighters in their more approachable, everyday work attire of slacks and polo short with the district logo, Ms. Gerola said. The firefighters then change into their turnout gear and interact with the children.

The youngsters also are taught matches and lighters are tools, not toys, she said.

The fire-education programs for students in second-fourth grades focus more on the job of a firefighter, Ms. Gerola said.

She said she never approaches fire as a bad thing. Instead, she stresses that fire can help people, telling children fire is something to live with and respect, she said.

“I tell them they can become a community helper, they can help the firefighters by preventing fires,” Ms. Gerola said. “I give them something they can relate to, like blowing out birthday candles.”
She also introduces them to EDITH. EDITH is an acronym for Exit Drills In The Home, she said.

Second-grade students are taught to “crawl low out of smoke,” she said. To practice this, Mr. Gerola and the firefighters will stretch out a black sheet a few feet from the floor to simulate low-lying smoke. The children will then practice crawling below the sheet and out the door of their classroom, as they would an exit at their home, to safety.

“It’s important to have two ways to exit a home in case of a fire,” she said. “And once they’re outside, it’s important for the families to have designated a meeting place.”

Third-grade students also focus on EDITH, Ms. Gerola said. By this grade, most students are mature enough to take on a leadership role in fire safety at home, she said.

“They become home inspectors, making sure there are no matches and lighters where younger children can get them. They make sure their smoke alarm batteries are changed at least once every year. Some people live in houses, some in apartments. Each home is different, so they make an escape plan and make sure the family practices it,” Ms. Gerola said. “They become good role models.”

Fourth-grade students are taught good citizenship and continue to fulfill the role of good role models, she said. They are asked to sign a pledge to be fire safe for life. Those pledges are entered into a drawing to win a trip to school while riding on a fire truck; the winner is allowed to bring two friends, Ms. Gerola said.

For more information about the SFMD Youth Firesetter Program or about fire safety, visit the fire district website at http://www.ajfire.org or call 480-982-4440.

Reach staff writer Wendy Miller at wmiller@newszap.com

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