It Takes a Village
Why arson is a growing threat, and how communities can fight it.
NFPA Journal®, May/June 2009
When we began NFPA’s Urban Fire Safety Project in Columbus, Ohio, in 2008, NFPA’s Public Education Division worked with Chief Ned Pettus and the Columbus Division of Fire on several fire safety issues, including arson. The city’s arson prevention program, run by Fire Prevention Bureau Chief Karry Ellis, not only addresses intentionally set fires, such as insurance fraud and juvenile firesetting, but includes an added feature we had rarely seen before: advice on what people can do about arson in their own communities.
We realized that this feature is particularly important to communities like Columbus that are experiencing a record number of vacant or abandoned houses due to foreclosure. That’s why we asked the fire department if we could expand on the idea and create a program to share with other departments across the country. The idea was to give public fire safety educators a PowerPoint presentation, complete with photos focusing on key messages and a "what to say" script in the notes pages, to which fire departments could add their own local statistics and slides showing the impact of arson in their own hard-hit neighborhoods.
The presentation, called "Preventing Arson Together," starts with the big picture. Each year in the United States, about 300,000 intentionally set fires kill 400 to 500 people and injure 6,000 to 8,000 civilians and firefighters. Direct property damage from arson averages about $1 billion a year. But these numbers don’t tell the whole story.
In densely packed urban neighborhoods, fire in one home can spread easily to another. Burned-out houses sitting unrepaired can reduce property values, and can become a magnet for additional fires and vandalism. This can create a climate of fear, as demonstrated by a recent rash of intentionally set fires in Coatesville, Pennsylvania.
Using Columbus’ program and NFPA’s statistics and resources as a starting point, we refined the messages of "Preventing Arson Together" to allow communities to address the urban conditions that can lead to increased arson. Among the actions the program encourages are clearing porches and yards of furniture, tires, trash, and overgrown vegetation in which fires can be easily set; securing and boarding up vacant homes; and removing cars that no longer run. The program also includes messages on the importance of escape planning and smoke alarms, and encourages people to organize neighborhood watches and report suspicious activity to the police or fire department.
"In the past, we never approached the community about block watches," said Fire Lieutenant David Sawyer, a community outreach officer in Columbus. "Usually, that was what the police did. Now we tell people to form watch groups and to report any problems using a publicized hotline number."
For details on this year’s Arson Awareness Week, May 3–9, visit the U.S. Fire Administration online at www.usfa.dhs.gov.
Sharon Gamache is director of high-risk outreach programs at NFPA's Public Education Division.