Kids playing with fire spark danger

Fire-safety education and setting up safety zones in the home are ways to manage a child's curiosity about fire.
Fire-safety education and setting up safety zones in the home are ways to manage a child's curiosity about fire.PHOTO: KIDDEFIRESAFETY/ INSTAGRAM

NEW YORK • A fire that killed 12 people at an apartment building in New York recently was started by a three-year-old boy who was playing with the burners on a stove.

He is not alone. Mr Daniel Nigro, the New York City fire commissioner, said his department gets 75 to 100 referrals a year about children who have a history of playing with or are fascinated by fire.

Young kids are most likely to start fires caused by play and are most likely to die in them, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Four children died in the New York inferno. The boy, who started it, survived when his mother grabbed him and another child and escaped the building.

Younger children are more likely to set fires in homes and older children and teenagers more likely to set them outside, according to the agency.

Lighters were the heat source in 52 per cent of the home fires involving play while 39 per cent began in a bedroom.

Psychologists have identified six motivations for why young people set fires, according to the American Psychological Association.

The most common fire-setters act out of curiosity. These children, who tend to be five to 10 years old, generally do not understand the consequences of their actions.

Interventions may include fire-safety education, evaluation for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and parent training.

Another group of fire-setters are typically between 11 and 15 years old and show little empathy for others, but they also tend to avoid harming others. They may cause significant property damage and show aggression and create problems. Possible interventions: behaviour management, empathy training and relaxation techniques.

Another group has a fixation with fire. Those in this category, including paranoid and psychotic children, may want to harm themselves. Possible interventions: intensive inpatient or outpatient cognitive behavioural therapy and social skills training.

Then, there are those with cognitive impairment or developmental disability. These children may struggle with good judgment but avoid intentional harm.

Significant property damage is common with this group. Possible interventions: special education and behaviour management.

Ms Torine Creppy, acting president of Safe Kids Worldwide, a nonprofit body dedicated to protecting children from unintentional injuries, said when it comes to fire safety, preventable measures need to be taken early. She recommends creating safety zones in the home.

Many people cook with family members nearby and do not create safe spaces between children and cooking surfaces. "Use tape," she advised, and leave it there whether a parent is present or not.

If a child is curious about fire, parents may want to set up gates that prevent him from entering high-risk areas. Parents must always keep matches and lighters away.

Another precautionary step: Create an escape plan. "Consider two ways out of every room," she added.

Parents should also teach children to let an adult know if they find matches or lighters.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's website said the most critical message for children to learn is that "matches and lighters are tools, not toys".

"Parents should never use lighters, matches and fire for fun; children will mimic you and when they do it unsupervised, tragic events can result."

If a fire breaks out, it is important to close the door when you leave to contain the flames, Mr Nigro said.

In the case of the New York fire, the mother left the door open. That allowed flames to shoot out of the kitchen and into the stairwell and the smoke to spread through the stairway of the five-storey apartment building.

Ms Creppy said it is crucial not to blame the parents. It is all about educating caregivers, she added, and creating a situation in which decisions are made from a place of preparedness, not just panic.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 07, 2018, with the headline 'Kids playing with fire spark danger'. Print Edition | Subscribe