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Want to kill off an evening or two in front of your computer?

Google “firefighter arson”.

Then, kick back and prepare to get angry!

From the lame and pathetic excuses offered up by the accused to the light sentences handed down to the guilty; it’s enough to get this old boy’s blood boiling.

Over the years, I have written a few blogs about this fire service issue and one thing remains true…

It is still a big problem for the nation’s fire service.


I think that part of the problem is that sentences for those firefighters convicted of arson are not strong enough to act as a deterrent for the next idiots  who masquerade as firefighters while setting fires.

Look at the most recent band of firefighter arsonists:

Two-the “ringleaders”-were sentenced to THREE years in prison for a “string” of arsons. “String” means that prosecutors weren’t exactly sure how many fires were set.

Two others were sentenced to three years PROBATION. A fifth firefighter will be sentenced next month (November). I am guessing that he will also receive probation.

And I sit here shaking my head!

Is it because these public safety predators are connected to the privileged class of their communities? Is their daddy or other relatives on the fire department or are past members? Or maybe they have a relative on the city council or fire board? It’s worth researching and discussing.

Is it because they are often “young adults”? Often times, the court system goes lenient because they don’t want to see this “one mistake” blight their record for the rest of their lives? You have seen it in the court testimony: This is a mistake made by otherwise ‘good kids’! Yeah; right. It’s as if they are comparing arson to tee-peeing someone’s house.

But, it seems that someone has to die in the fire or in close approximate time to the fire to see any significant sentences handed down.

Does anyone remember the case of Caleb Lacey?

He set a fire just down from where he lived so that he could be the first there and makes heroic rescues. He confessed to his crime, but claimed he was innocent. He received 25 years to life. Here’s the link:

What if someone had not died in the fire that he was convicted of setting? For the record; FOUR died in this fire.

Had there only been property damage and no fatalities, would his have been another case with an anemic sentence of less than 5 years in prison or worse; probation?

Based upon many of the cases that I have reviewed, I would have to say “yes”.

The problem might also lay with the legal definition of “arson”.

The legal definition from is: Intentional wrongful setting of fires and possession of explosives is governed by state criminal laws, which vary by state. Federal laws also govern possession of explosives, such as on an airplane. Arson is committed when a person intentionally damages a building by starting or maintaining a fire or causing an explosion. The arsonist's knowledge or suspicion that a person may occupy the building when it is on fire will heighten the seriousness of the charge. Arson may be committed by an act of recklessness which results in a fire.

In some states, if the building is not inhabited or is determined to be uninhabitable, then a charge of arson may not apply. That is left to the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ). I would guess that some type of criminal mischief charge may be filed. Again; it could depend on WHO is being charged.

Here in Illinois, if a public safety employee is injured as the result of a deliberately set fire (arson), aggravating circumstances exist for additional sentencing guidelines.

So, it is clear that it may be unclear when you have a fire that has been set that it may or may not be arson and even if it was determined to be arson, mitigating issues might result in light sentences upon conviction.

With that said, I have to ask about the betrayal of the public’s trust when a firefighter sets a fire. Shouldn’t there be an automatic prison term for this betrayal, regardless of whether it is defined as “arson”?

In my opinion, betraying the public trust should bring a minimum prison sentence of at least five years. No; I’m not saying that we are better than the public. I am saying that we are different from the public that we have sworn to serve.

But, from what I have seen, few judges have addressed the betrayal of public trust when they sentence firefighters for setting fires.

In my mind, betraying public trust in the commission of this type of crime is very disturbing and very serious, because every firefighter everywhere is forced to fight this stigma that is put on public display the minute a firefighter is arrested for setting fires. Innocent until proven guilty is dead on arrival as soon as the headline appears.

It has been the subject of investigative news shows such as Dateline. Documentaries have been done on the more prolific firefighter arsonists.

Way back in the 1980s, a firefighter setting fires was a subplot in a little movie titled “Backdraft”. Axe, played by Scott Glenn, was setting fires, because the mayor was making cutbacks. Bull, played by Kirk Russell, found out about it and you know the rest. Have a tissue ready at the end if you watch it. Yeah; I still choke up when I watch it.

Firefighter arson has been referred to as the fire service’s “dirty little secret” for too many years, but the secret is out. It is front page news and lead stories for the entire world to see.

Even today, many firefighters STILL struggle to engage in the discussion of it.

And I know that there are fire departments who still believe that they can handle this “problem” internally.

Simply put; they kick out their problem and kick it down the road to another unsuspecting fire department, where the mutt can resume his fire-setting ways. In the process, I think it opens the door to charges of complicity or conspiracy on the part of the fire department.

To make my position on firefighter arson crystal clear; a firefighter charged and convicted of arson should receive a sentence of no less than 10 years for the crime of arson, 5 years for betraying the public’s trust and NO probation, unless it comes after the prison sentence has been served.

And while we are at it, make firefighter arson a federal offense. That will throw off any hometown feel for the favorite “home boys”.

A bit irrational, you say?

Not a chance.

I have been looking at this fire service scourge for over 20 years. We need to put down the books by Dr. Spock and pick up B.F. Skinner.

As I was writing this, the NVFC released a new report on firefighter arson. It is in a downloadable PDF and can be found here, but let me warn you; if you read the report, then you might be admitting that the fire service does indeed have a firefighter arson problem (over 100 cases a YEAR, folks and that’s just the ones we know of).

Let me hear your thoughts.


The opinions and views expressed are those of the article’s author, Art Goodrich, who also writes as ChiefReason. They do not reflect the opinions and views of, Fire Engineering Magazine, PennWell Corporation or his dog, Chopper. All articles by the author are protected by federal copyright and cannot be reproduced in any form without expressed permission.

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Comment by Chris Wilson on November 4, 2011 at 3:28am

Art, job well done. This is a great article. Arson by a firefighter is a bigger problem than most people, even in the fire service, are aware of and a subject that I have followed for years. Nothing makes me more upset and causes a bigger disgrace to the fire service than a firefighter committing arson. There is alot of public trust lost when this happens. No, we are not better than the public, but we are held to a higher standard and this is something that we have to accept. If someone joining the fire service can not accept this, then they need to find something else to do. There should be no leniency for a firefighter committing arson...none at all. I have no tolerance for this.

Unfortunately my department is no stranger to firefighter arson. I know of at least 4-5 individuals iin just the last 10+ years that have done this. The last one would never have had the opportunity to commit arson as a firefighter if my department would have had stricter back ground checks when he joined (we have better back ground checks now). He only served a minimal sentence after his first time. Yes, first time...after he was release from jail he moved to another town and set more fires. This time he received at least a 20 year sentence. The first couple were kicked out of my department and they just went down the road to another department.

Setting fires is not the only problem. Some of the firefighters turn in false alarms too, as was the case earlier this year in my department. The young member turned in a false alarm because he was bored. I was involved in this case as both a member and the responding fire investigator for my department. His case is still pending in the courts but my department board of directors decided that, if he ends up not being convicted, that he can re-apply to the department after an unknown amount of time. I almost resigned over this, especially since I was almost hit by another vehicle while responding to the original alarm. I am not through with this issue though I doubt anything will change.

Mandatory 10+ year sentences...yes. Additional added to the sentence for betraying the public trust...yes. Make it a federal offense...even better. Irrational...not at all. Right on target!                                                                                                                                                             

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