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VU study investigates young repeat firebugs

Victoria University (VU) in partnership with the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) is conducting a three-year study to help identify young firebugs at risk of becoming adult arsonists.

Professor Dorothy Bruck of VU's School of Social Sciences and Psychology said children or teenagers are responsible for around 20 per cent of fires in Australia. About one-third of them continue to light fires even after they take a fire awareness course.

"Deliberate fire-setting by young people in a vulnerable fire-prone country like Australia is both a public health concern and a community problem with financial, social and emotional consequences," she said.

The $80,000 study will be the first comprehensive look at the predictors of recidivism for juvenile fire-setting in Australia, and involve the largest number of young fire-setters ever studied internationally.

"This project aims to address a disturbing preliminary finding that about 30 per cent of young Australian fire-setters who complete a specialised fire awareness program will light further uncontrolled fires within one year," she said.

The study will involve about 150 young people aged between 5 and 18 who are referred to the MFB's four-week juvenile fire awareness and intervention education program (JFAIP) after they have lit fires.

It will follow up a year later to see who has relit, then compare the results with information from screening tools and specialised questionnaires designed to predict repeat fire-setting behaviours. The tools look at several factors in the child's background and behaviour that have a strong correlation with repeat fire-setting including ineffective or harsh parental discipline, high family conflict, poor fire safety skills, a strong interest in fire, knowledge of what burns, and carelessness.

"Some adult arsonists are clearly fascinated with fire from a young age, and this study will take a long-term perspective to nip this in the bud," she said.

Professor Bruck said she anticipated the project would lead to changes to improve the quality of intervention programs for fire-setters at high risk of recidivism, including juvenile fire-lighting intervention programs and mental health programs.

The Australian Research Council is providing funds for a doctoral student to collect the data.

The JFAIP was developed by the MFB in 1986 to address concerns by fire services and the Royal Children's Hospital staff relating to fires attributed to young people and subsequent childhood burns. The program is tailored toward the individual needs and maturity of the young person. A specially trained firefighter works with the family and aims to develop within the young person a greater respect of fire and an awareness of the consequences of its misuse. The benefits of fire are explained and the young person is taught that fire is a tool, and not a toy.

Professor Dorothy Bruck is available for interview: Ph: 0428 139 884

VU Media Contact: Ann Marie Angebrandt, Media Officer, Marketing and Communications Department,

Victoria University Ph: (03) 9919 5487 or 0403 556 001

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