Reading Fire Marshall Jeremy Searfoss is asking parents some difficult questions.
If you suspect your child is misusing fire, Searfoss urges you to contact the newly formed Berks County Youth Fire Education Coalition.
At a press conference Thursday in City Council chambers, Searfoss said he was proud and excited to announce the formation of the coalition.
It’s a coalition because efforts by Reading and other fire and police departments to promote a countywide fire prevention education curriculum have failed.
Exeter Township Police Officer David M. Bentz, who has served in the township fire marshal’s office for almost 20 years, said there have been a few occasions when the township fire department has met children who were experimenting with fire or even had more deep-seated problems with fire.
“But when we did, we had nowhere to turn,” Bentz said. “In the beginning we’d start with a ‘scared-straight’ approach and show gory movies with burn victims to kids and hope for the best.”
But when former Reading Fire Marshal David Janiszewski retired and took the job as fire marshal in Exeter, he brought with him knowledge of the National Fire Academy’s Juvenile Fire Setter Program and the successes it had.
Under Janiszewski’s leadership, Bentz said the township developed a youth arson awareness program of its own and tried to spread the word to other municipalities.
“We were unable to spark enthusiasm in the program outside the township,” Bentz said.
A big part of the problem was that the township has a volunteer fire department.
While those volunteers will get out of bed in the middle of the night or in foul weather to fight a fire, it’s much harder to convince them to take time away from day jobs and family commitments to put on a youth arson prevention program at local schools.
“We went from a full-fledged Juvenile Fire Setter program in the township to finding treatment on an as-needed basis for kids we found having problems,” Bentz said.
No more, Searfoss said.
With a full-time contingent of professional firefighters, Reading has filled the breach with manpower and resources.
Searfoss marshaled expertise from the Burn Prevention Network, Allentown, with contributions from the Fightin Phils, Berks Fire Water Restoration Inc. and others.
Searfoss said the Fightins have been constant supporters and promoters of the fire department.
Dave Meas, vice president of development at Berks Fire Water, said the company’s mission is to clean up after a fire or other disaster strikes a home.
“It’s nice for us to think that we can do something to prevent a home fire from happening,” Meas said.
The program is not intended to take the place of professional counseling, discipline or the juvenile court system, Searfoss stressed.
“The purpose is to assist parents and children by providing educational opportunities specifically oriented toward fire safety,” he said.
Councilwoman Marcia Goodman-Hinnershitz, who is a professional social worker, said she came to the press conference to lend her support.
She said counselors often deal with fire-setting behaviors and any program designed to address the issue before a tragedy happens is worth supporting.
Youth fire misuse
Any behavior involving the improper or unapproved use of fire, including experimentation with matches and lighters, fire lighting, arson, false alarms and a fascination with fire works is considered youth fire misuse. Children under 18 account for 50 percent of U.S. arsons and 40 percent of fires that kill children under five were set by juveniles. Youth fire misuse resulted in 56,300 fires, 110 deaths and 880 civilian injuries.
A child may be misusing fire if these are found:
- Lighters, matches or fireworks in a child’s room, pockets or belongings.
- Lighters, matches, aerosol sprays, fireworks or flammable liquids go missing.
- Discarded lighters or matches in the garbage or yard.
- Smell of smoke or sometihng burning without a known source.