Fire starting; early intervention and education

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For this podcast, we are honoured to be joined by criminologist Joanna Foster. Joanna has managed the London Fire Brigade Firesetters Intervention Scheme and now runs fabtic, a company specialising in fire setting behaviour by children.

Joanna provides insight into how common fire starting is in children, as well as at what age children start setting fires, and whether fire setting is different for young children and teenagers.

Joanna talks us through whether the prevalence, and risk, of fire starting is the same for boys and girls and explores what the evidence shows regarding why children and young people start fires, including why fire can be seen as a form of expression.

Joanna examines how we can identify a child who is at risk of setting fires, and discusses whose job is it to identify these children at risk, as well as what more need to be done to best support families affected by this.

Furthermore, Joanna shares her advice to parents and carers who are worried that their children are at risk of fire setting, or who are already setting fires, as well as her advice to children and young people who set fires. Joanna highlights an important message for policy makers and suggests useful resources for those listening.

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Joanna Foster
Joanna Foster

After graduating from Oxford University, Joanna gained over sixteen years’ experience of working in the public, charitable and voluntary sectors, including ten years managing the London Fire Brigade’s Juvenile Firesetters Intervention Scheme. As manager, Joanna worked with hundreds of London’s most at-risk children and families, and re-shaped the JFIS programme in line with statutory requirements to ensure the highest possible standards for clients and staff. Using her working knowledge and training in children’s safeguarding and wellbeing, Joanna worked closely with the London Child Protection Committee to introduce juvenile firesetting behaviour into the London Child Protection Procedures for the first time. In 2010, Joanna’s work with two clients was filmed as part of the BBC2 documentary series Wonderland, in an episode entitled ‘The Kids That Play With Fire’. In June 2013 Joanna launched fabtic, a company specialising in juvenile firesetting behaviour. Joanna now delivers training, consultancy and supervision services to front-line practitioners. She continues to work directly with children and teenagers who set fires, working both privately with families and via referrals from public sector organisations. Joanna’s professional clients include practitioners from the NHS, CAHMS, HMPPS, YOT, forensic psychology, fire services, police, education, social care, academia, arts therapies, secure units and mental health services. She has also trained practitioners in the US. She has also developed and delivered workshops tailored specifically to parents and carers whose children set fires. Although specialising in juvenile firesetting, Joanna’s work and studies enable her to deliver training and workshops that cover the spectrum of children and families’ wellbeing needs.

Joanna has a Post Graduate Certificate (PGC) in Child, Adolescent and Family Mental Health, and recently completed her Master’s in Applied Criminology, Penology and Management at Cambridge University. Her thesis explored the identification of risk and need when working with children who set fires. Her work continues to attract media attention and in October 2016 featured in the Financial Times in an article entitled ‘I Stop Children Setting Fires’. Joanna’s first book ‘Children and Teenagers Who Set Fires: Why they do it and how to help’ was published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers in 2019. Joanna has spoken at national and international conferences in the UK, Ireland, Scandinavia, New Zealand and the US on the subjects of juvenile firesetting and children’s safeguarding. In response to COVID-19, Joanna now provides direct client services, training and supervision online. She also launched her YouTube channel ‘FEwithJo’ to provide free online resources for practitioners, parents and carers.

If you are interested in hearing more about fire starting, watch our two-part workshop on ‘Fire starting; what makes young people do it, which interventions work’ with Joanna Foster.

Fire starting; what makes young people do it, which interventions work – Joanna Foster (session 1)
Fire starting; what makes young people do it, which interventions work – Joanna Foster (session 2)


Jo Carlowe: Hello. Welcome to the “In Conversation” podcast series for the Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health or ACAMH for short. I’m Jo Carlowe, a freelance journalist with a specialism in psychology. Today I am interviewing criminologist, Joanna Foster. Joanna has managed the London Fire Brigade Firesetters Intervention Scheme and now runs Fabtic. A company specialising in fire setting behaviour by children. She delivers training, consultancy, and supervision to front line practitioners, and continues to work directly with children and teenagers who set fires.

If you’re a fan of our “In Conversation” series, please subscribe on your preferred streaming platform. Let us know how we do with a rating or review, and do share with friends and colleagues. Joanna, welcome. Can you start with an introduction?

Joanna Foster: Perhaps first and foremost, I’m a Welsh woman. So I’m a child of the 1970s brought up in a small mining town called Aberdare in the South Wales valleys. That identity and the political history of the ’80s and the miners strike in particular is still a big part of what defines me and my outlook. Perhaps untypically of a kid from a comprehensive school who is eligible for free school meals in a working-class family, at 18 I went to Oxford University and studied history at Magdalen College. After graduating I spent time in a number of different jobs in different places, including overseas, in East Africa, and eventually I settled back in the UK. And I’ve been in London for the last 23 years.

Jo Carlowe: And how did that take you from there to becoming an expert on children who set fires?

Joanna Foster: I didn’t go through school thinking I would do this job and didn’t even know such work existed. So in some ways I almost found the job by accident. But I started to become interested in fire as a form of expression when I volunteered as a telephone helpline advisor with the charity SANEline. One of our frequent callers would often set fires in distress. I became interested in that use of an element that’s so fundamental and present in all our lives, but how it became this symbol of expression, control, and power when so much else was powerless and out of control. So that started my early thinking around the use of fire, alongside, of course, the understanding that so much of adult ill health mentally and physically is rooted in our early years experiences. When I was in one of my paid roles in London and I was also the fire warden for the department. Taking my role very seriously it was 2002 of the National Firefighters strike and we were on the 26th floor of a high rise building in Central London. And I looked at the London Fire Brigade website to look for advice on what to do in the event of a fire with limited firefighter cover. When looking at the website I could see the adverts to become a fire fighter and it’s a job I wouldn’t be able to do. I take my hat off to the women and men that can and do that job daily.

But there was the section on other jobs in the fire service and I saw this role advertised. To run the programme that worked with children, teenagers who set fires. And for me it seemed to bring together everything I’d started to become interested in. Early intervention, the use of fire. And I looked at the job description and thought I could do that. I want to do that, and I got the job, and here I am now nearly 20 years later.

Jo Carlowe: How common is fire starting in children?

Joanna Foster: To our shame, in the UK we cannot give a figure on how many children set fires or how many fires are set by children, because the data isn’t captured, for example, by the home office or the Department of Health if we start to think more of fire setting behaviour as a public health concern rather than a criminal or offending behaviour. No one records this data systematically. And so of course, when we ask that question, and it’s an important one because we resource people and services to address the scale of a problem, many of us sit here not knowing really exactly, certainly within our jurisdictions, well, what is the extent of this problem?

And so of course, what we have to do is look to the literature and research elsewhere. And internationally, it’s suggested that in the community samples have been carried out, one in three children sets a fire, at some point. And Professor David Kolko, who’s considered one of the international leading names in this field, suggests that fire play is so common as to be considered quite typical for children, especially younger children as they progress through their child development.

Jo Carlowe: So I’m really curious about that. At what age do children start setting fires? And is fire setting different for young children than for teenagers?

Joanna Foster: A child’s curiosity is by doing, playing, and they gain mastery by taking control of objects and especially when those objects are sensory. And indeed, fire is so sensory. So this is what marks out the difference often between younger children setting fires and teenagers. It’s about, well, what is the intent here? And we often think of fire setting behaviour on a spectrum. Interestingly, a recent book by Dr. Horsley on perspectives on arson and fire setting talks about a spectrum of fire setting generally, in society, where we use it and enjoy it and where does it flip into becoming harmful, antisocial, and indeed offending?

Children can start to play with fire from a very young age with a motivation predominantly of curiosity, which makes it then different to why older children and teenagers may use fire when perhaps they now have an understanding of the danger it can cause, but will do it anyway because it may be part of their risk-taking as teenagers.

Jo Carlowe: I’m curious about if a child starts very young because of curiosity, are they then more likely to carry on lighting fires or is there no link?

Joanna Foster: When we look at the research, we recognise that the more fire involvement there has been from a younger age, the higher the likelihood of further fire setting. We don’t have studies sufficient enough to make any connection between early fire setting as a trajectory into adult fire setting. There are huge gaps in our knowledge and the literature around much of fire safety behaviour in children and teenagers.

But if we think of the work of Professor Theresa Gannon, who pioneers in adult fire setting intervention and research in her programmes, questions, of course, are asked around early fire involvement and interest. And an excellent question that asks, not only what is your first fire, but what is your first memory of fire? Which is picking up the recognised risk factors around child fire setting, in particular, where we look to this whole question of what was the fire interest, the access and exposure for a child? How is fire being modelled in a family? A powerful question when working with families where they have concerns for their children or child setting fires is, have you ever experienced fire as a family, more generally? Has anyone else in your home ever set fires? Did the adults in the home ever set fires as children? So what are the attitudes, almost the social norms around fire, for this child and their family?

Jo Carlowe: I want to look more at risk factors. But I’m wondering about risk when it comes to gender. Is prevalence and risk the same for boys and girls?

Joanna Foster: When it comes to thinking specifically about sex and gender, we know that boys are seen much more in support services. So it’s typical that boys are referred for intervention two to three times more than girls. But of course, these are the children that we know about. What about all those children who set fires that we don’t know about? And one of the few UK studies we have on prevalence of fire setting by Dr. Barrowcliffe under the guidance of Theresa Gannon, when Dr. Barrowcliffe was doing her doctorate she carried out a study and people were asked to complete a survey. So they self-identified. Did they ever set fires as children? And they were asked about fires from the age of 10 upwards. And in that study of 157 participants, of those adults that identified as setting fires as children, 62% were men. And so when people are self-reporting, then, we see a slightly higher prevalence of women. But generally, it is much more male dominated as a behaviour, which is typical when you look at other offending. US studies estimate that 83% of house fires are started by boys.

Jo Carlowe: What does the evidence show regarding why children and young people start fires?

Joanna Foster: Here we think back to our spectrum of fire setting behaviours. So first and foremost, it’s the curiosity around fire and the presence of fire. We couldn’t exist as human beings without fire, so there’s something about it’s an everyday accessible tool, but of course, it’s the misuse of that tool. And when we think of the spectrum of fire setting in children, in particular, once children start to move beyond curiosity alone, we start to think about is this what’s called expressive fire setting, or a cry for help where a child realises the setting of a fire can release their emotions, or draw attention to their emotions? Research tells us that children who set fires have higher levels of emotional dysregulation than children who do not set fires.

So there’s something there about the use of fire as expressive. Children who set fires have many of the complex multiple problems we see in children with other behaviours of concern. But it is the fire that sets them apart from other children. Of course, there are there now, teenagers setting fires and the use of fire as part of risk-taking. And whilst there’s a danger here to normalise in terms of, oh, well, it’s all right that they’re doing it. Of course not, but again, you’re back to this whole, let’s make sure we’re not pathologizing or medicalizing here, what is typical evolutionary behaviour where children have to risk-take. They have to push against boundaries.

Jo Carlowe: Can you say any more, Joanna, about why fire is a form of expression?

Joanna Foster: It’s such a great question, and one we still grapple with. I would first and foremost, say it’s the accessibility that fire is readily available. As an example, there’s no age limit around what age a child can purchase matches or lighters, yet there is for solvents, fireworks, cigarettes, knives, and it’s about them– well, what message really is going alongside the use of fire? Are we recognising it as a tool that’s important? Or has it become such an accessible part of our lives and almost an entertaining part of our lives, and we think of the use of fire in poetry, in songs, in television. How many soap operas regularly feature fires as a repeating storyline? I would say it’s the accessibility. And in terms of those children I’ve worked with directly who move beyond the use of curiosity, it’s that voice. And a fabulous example of this is the story of a child, now a man, called Michael Cooper. His nickname is Mini. In the 1970s, he was filmed as part of a BBC documentary by the director Franc Roddam. And it’s an incredible documentary. It’s still available via BBC iPlayer.

So it’s called Mini. And in 2013, they did a follow up to the documentary of Mini, A Life Revisited. And of course, Mini is now a grown man. I suggest in his 50s given his age at the time of the documentary. He was 11, and he’d been branded an arsonist. He was too dangerous to be in the community, too dangerous to even go home for visits at the weekend. And when in 2013, he’s reinterviewed watching the documentary and in his book that he has since produced he says specifically and powerfully, “fire was my only voice.” He talks about being told what to say, what to think, what to do, what not to do. And he was a bright and brilliant boy who knew his own mind but subject to horrendous physical abuse at home that was commonplace in our schools. So a boy who was bullied, and abused, and physically shut down on so many levels, his voice was fire. His book is called Mini and Me by Michael Cooper. And I would say that resonates most strongly amongst the young people I work with where fire becomes their voice. It’s difficult to ignore fire. Fire screams, see me, hear me. And when we think of children who are abused, and neglected, who are often hidden, who are powerless, and have no voice, well, what is fire if not powerful, and visible, and hard to ignore, and hard to deny?

Jo Carlowe: So how can we identify a child, like Mini, who is at risk of setting fires perhaps, before it happens or soon after it’s happened? And whose job is it to do so?

Joanna Foster: That’s a cracking question, whose job is it to dos so? And there I would return to the whole question of safeguarding as everyone’s responsibility. And that whole notion, the African proverb, that it takes a village to raise a child that we could segregate this out well, it’s the fire service, it’s mental health, it’s social care, it’s schools, but actually, as we know, it’s all of these elements that requires children to be healthy, to be safe. So I would suggest it’s a responsibility on all professionals, and individuals, and organisations who interact with children and families to be alert to– well, of all the risks that are in a home, what’s the fire setting risk, here? How equipped are our health visitors to be asking these questions? There’s almost levels of intervention here. And as we know, it’s always about early intervention, prevention is far better. So how equipped are our families to understand fire safety? What do they learn at school, generally, about keeping themselves and others safe at home from fire?

We have to be embedding good fire safety education, fire safety practise in all elements of what it is to be a society our housing, our education, our health care. And then, of course, the specific organisations that have higher level of intervention around child set fire, as well, how equipped are our fire services in terms of training and resources? And the same question for our mental health practitioners and our social workers when they have such a broad level of responsibility well, how much does child fire setting feature in those priorities? But indeed, it needs to.

Jo Carlowe: What’s your thought about that? Do professionals who work in child and adolescent mental health and in education know where to signpost families affected by this, and how best to support them? And if not, what more needs to be done?

Joanna Foster: From my professional work and indeed the research that is available, sadly, I would say no, not enough professionals know what each other can and need to do. For example, do the majority of the public at large, and indeed, different support agencies know that the majority of fire services in the UK have dedicated teams for children and teenagers who are setting fires? The reason we have the research around the little-known work that is going on, there was a major study published in 2005 that looked at interventions in England and Wales for children and adults who set fires. And it was established that the majority of interventions for children setting fires are conducted by fire services, and its majority fire safety education, which in the literature is established as the most universal response to this problematic behaviour. Yet for the work that the fire services do, very often there are very few formal pathways between organisations like fire services to mental health, mental health to social care, social care to fire service to say, OK, who is doing what, where, and how? And in particular, how are we identifying the need of this child? Is this about fire safety education, or is there perhaps the need for psychosocial interventions? The umbrella term, that in the literature it’s recognised largely children need either fire safety education or psychosocial interventions.

But how on earth are practitioners making these decisions of risk and need in the absence of any framework within mental health, or social care, or youth justice, or fire services around assessment of fire setting behaviour?

And then, we fast forward from 2005 to 2020, and my own research through the University of Cambridge, when I did my master’s thesis asking again, this question well, 15 years previously, it was recommended to have formal referral pathways and start to better identify what services children need. In 2020, there was still no assessment framework, no standardisation of intervention. And so I look to see how do fire service staff make these decisions? And what came clearly through is that in the absence of any framework that standardised the interventions that are happening, of course, then, will by their very nature be inconsistent around how is need identified?

What was coming through the research for fire services, in particular, was they see social care very much as right, that’s the go to refer on, refer on, refer on. Which of course, is understandable, because it’s about thinking of the different remits of who can make risk assessments? Who can intervene? But we are in danger of referring on, when who’s holding these children? Who’s containing these families? What training have social workers had in fire fire setting behaviour? And similarly then, with mental health. Mental health are often referring in to fire services for their intervention. And yet no one has a clear steer on who needs to be doing what, when. And that’s not to sit here and blame individual fire services, or individual CAMHS, or social care. But nationally, when we don’t have any standardisation, how can it be anything other than individual fire services, and counties are doing what they think is best practise, but of course, it’s leading to gaps.

Jo Carlowe: It doesn’t sound at all joined up. So where does that leave professionals who work in child and adolescent mental health? What interventions do work?

Joanna Foster: The limited literature tells us that it’s fire safety education or psychosocial intervention. So in terms of psychosocial interventions, we’re thinking of cognitive behavioural therapy. We’re considering family therapy. It’s accepted, in the literature, that the majority of children will respond well and best to fire safety education, in fact this notion of let’s not pathologize this behaviour. Let’s be proportionate in our response. And I would ask anyone listening to this who perhaps is new to this field, always in our responses, are we being proportionate, here? We do not ignore the problem. That’s not a proportionate response. But neither do we need to be thinking necessarily of criminalising nor medicalizing. But yes, perhaps then, a child has gone beyond the support and specialism that fire safety education is, and maybe it is the specialism for example, offered within child and adolescent mental health and thinking more about well, what’s happening for the child and their family that’s influencing this behaviour?

Jo Carlowe: What advice do you have for parents and carers who are worried that their children are at risk of fire setting, or who are already setting fires?

Joanna Foster: I’m a big advocate, Jo, that most people are expert on their own lives. We all need help and support, at some point, but we usually know what’s OK and not for us and for our children and teenagers, in particular.

So for any parent who is concerned, that’s enough to be seeking out a conversation with someone to say what your concern is. So is it about mentioning it at school? Is it if you’re known already to other services, talking about it with your social worker, your mental health practitioner, your GP? Is it about picking up the phone and asking the permission to call your local fire service, and say, look, this has happened. Am I right to be concerned? And whatever level of fire setting, if I can use that expression, a family might be worried about whether it’s happened for the first time, or it’s happened for a number of occasions, there is nothing wrong in going to your fire service and asking for support, because at the very minimum what they can do is provide free, working smoke alarms. And what most fire services call a safe and well visit, where trained professionals, whether they’re firefighters or other fire service staff, will visit that home and give really specific advice about escape routes and identified fire hazards generally before any intervention and one to one work. Have a conversation about it, because if we ignore this, then we run the danger of well, what might the next fire look like? And it’s almost the same message for our professionals that, are they right to be concerned about this behaviour? Yes, it’s a behaviour of concern that may require very short-term intervention, fire safety education. But if we can make even one element of a child and family’s life safer, when perhaps they are facing many difficulties, then, that can only be a good thing.

Jo Carlowe: What about for children and young people themselves who set fire? What advice do you have for them?

Joanna Foster: The heart of fire safety messages will be the whole, this isn’t OK. And indeed, for younger children, they will play games of yes, I can play, no, stay away. So there are very clear instructions there on what a child can do what a child cannot do. And with our older children our teenagers, in particular, I’d really encourage them to talk to someone about this. Is there something here that they need help with? And can they really have a conversation with someone they trust to say what’s happening with a view to getting supported?

Jo Carlowe: Joanna, what is your message to policy makers?

Joanna Foster: We need to do better. And there’s something here about the Maya Angelou saying that once we know better, we can do better. I can understand policy makers across government departments, across individual services, the fire setting behaviour is not on their radar for all the reasons we’ve outlined. But if it’s about listening to podcasts like this, attending the various webinars, accessing people’s books and research that are accessible that are available, and most of us in this field are really wanting and desperate to speak to people. I would encourage policymakers, once this starts to come on your radar, then, there’s the reason and real need that we do better, that you and all of us do better. Ask the question of what does the service for children and families look like in this area, or this service? How are our staff trained? How are they resourced? How are our staff looked after in this work, when it’s so emotionally charged and difficult? What does supervision look like? So as I have in many ways Jo, there’s nothing here that would be new, but it might be new in terms of how we really think about this subject.

Jo Carlowe: Thank you. I’m wondering if there are any useful resources that you can suggest for our listeners.

Joanna Foster: Your fire services are good sources of support. Of course then, there’s those dedicated fire setting intervention teams where there is a concern around this behaviour. Look at the websites of fire services. They often have areas on education and that can include resource activities for parents, teachers to download or complete. There is a website resource in the UK, but of course, it can be accessed from wherever called StayWise, which is a national online library of resources for children, for all areas of safety, road safety, water safety, fire safety. And there’s different levels of access on the website. You can access it as a teacher, as a parent. And if it doesn’t seem, Jo, like too much of a shameless plug, when there are actually very few books nationally or internationally in this field, I would encourage people to have a look at my book. It’s called Children and Teenagers Who Set Fires, Why They Do It, and How To Help. In the book there are lots of case studies, and there’s really effective activities that parents can do, that professionals can do, and again, signposted. I’m a big advocate for access in libraries. Go to your local library order the book, so there isn’t a cost implication.

Jo Carlowe: Fantastic, that sounds super helpful. Joanna, what else is in the pipeline for you?

Joanna Foster: Well, as you can probably guess, Jo, I’m on a mission to get the research out there, to still encourage policy makers, practitioners to learn the lessons from the 2005 study, to take my 2020 study. Of course, we’ve been hugely hit by COVID, and it’s difficult to change, to be forward thinking, when you’re dealing with a global pandemic. But if we are gradually coming through this horror and able to look perhaps now, more long term about what’s needed, then, I would really encourage our policy makers, our organisations to come to me, to go to the research, to start to identify these gaps. But also having conversations with practitioners, policy makers across all the different organisations to say, we really can do valuable work here and let’s make it the best it can be.

Jo Carlowe: Great, and finally, what is your take home message for those listening to our conversation?

Joanna Foster: Don’t ignore the behaviour. If there has to be one take home message, it’s don’t ignore this behaviour. And then, alongside that of course, fitting in with that message is, listen to what’s potentially being communicated by this behaviour and let that lead your response that is proportionate. So think about the child, their age, their ability. What’s going on for them and their family? So let’s never ignore the behaviour. Let’s listen to what it’s telling us. And let’s then put in place a response that truly serves children’s needs and their safety and well-being.

Jo Carlowe: Joanna, thank you so much. It’s been absolutely fascinating. For more details on Joanna Foster, please visit the ACAMH website and Twitter @acamh. ACAMH is spelled A-C-A-M-H and don’t forget to follow us on your preferred streaming platform. Let us know if you enjoyed the podcast with a rating or review and do share with friends and colleagues.


very good session – well done

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