- Caseworkers work with high-risk young people, developing fire safety knowledge and helping them find alternative coping strategies
- More than nine in 10 stop firesetting and haven't returned to it six months later
London Fire Brigade's (LFB) Juvenile Firesetters Intervention Scheme started in 2001, inspired by a training manual by educational psychologist Andrew Muckley. Its seven-strong team addresses children and teenagers' dangerous interactions with fire: from fire play sparked by curiosity, to deliberate or impulsive firesetting triggered by mental health, family, social and behavioural issues. Team leader Helen Lloyd-Williams says firesetting can be a "cry for help" from young people not otherwise feeling heard, sometimes experiencing abuse, neglect, bereavement or difficult transitions. LFB youth intervention manager Divya Patel says it can also be "a coping mechanism, or form of re-gaining control".
Under-18s are referred by parents, schools or professionals including social workers or youth offending teams. Caseworkers build a picture of the contributing issues, helped by social care casefiles and other documents. They visit parents or carers, building understanding of home life and behaviour and providing fire-safety advice, such as keeping lighters out of reach.
The intervention team uses a traffic light system to grade the severity of cases. Low-risk "green" cases may require just three visits, but "red" cases need up to 12 sessions for more in-depth work. These young people may have mental health issues and conditions including gender dysphoria, autism, ADHD and "oppositional defiant disorder". The proportion of red cases has increased to around 70 per cent, four-fifths of them boys. Caseworkers signpost to relevant specialists where necessary.
Caseworkers have initial three-day training, plus ongoing training from specialists covering areas including mental health conditions, trauma, attachment and neuroscience. Caseworker Tanya Esat explains that this "helps us get more tapped into what's going on for the child; the underlying behaviour and what that's communicating to us", so the approach can be adapted accordingly. Caseworkers visit participants for up to an hour, tailoring activities to individuals' needs and abilities.
Developing consequential thinking is a key aim of the intervention, says Patel. "They often think they're in control of the fire, saying: ‘nothing would have gone wrong, I would've just put it out'," she explains. "So we show them how quickly fires can spread, through photos or videos."
"We explore with them the ripple-effect on lots of different people across the community," adds Lloyd-Williams. "This includes firefighters and their families and the person they couldn't reach because they'd been called to the bin fire in the park."
Caseworkers use individually-adapted, age-appropriate art, crafts and activities, such as asking children to identify pictures of "good" and "bad" fires. Esat says they aim to "empower the child to make positive choices", sometimes tasking them with becoming "fire-safety champions"at home, or creating a fire-safety club. Older participants may be helped to resist peer pressure and develop decision-making skills through roleplay, helping them apply different ways of thinking to challenging situations.
Caseworkers attend multi-agency meetings such as case conferences and their trusting relationships with participants help them advocate for them if criminal action is being considered, or in support of care placements. Once confident about a participant's improved fire-safety understanding and reduction in firesetting, assessed through a questionnaire and liaison with parents and relevant professionals, they compile a closing report. Participants may be signposted to LFB's LIFE (Local Intervention Fire Education) scheme, a four- or five-day course in firefighter skills for 14 -to 17-year-olds, then progress to Fire Cadets, resulting in a BTEC qualification.
More than 3,800 children and young people from all London boroughs have been referred since 2001. Out of 46 questionnaire responses from parents last year, 85 per cent awarded the programme the top score for its success in educating their children about fire safety. Follow-up calls six months after case closure show between 90 and 99 per cent of participants still not firesetting, with parents citing positive impacts including increased confidence and school engagement, alongside peace of mind at home.