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Another school block lost to arson.

Extinguishing arson – myth vs methodology

Many community groups, schools, forestry managers and others whose properties are frequent targets of arson often consider themselves highly vulnerable to arson but felt helpless to combat it. Peter Wilding who oversees arson reduction for the New Zealand Fire Service challenges this perception and outlines a simple, cost effective methodology used in New Zealand that has seen a sustained drop in school fires by almost 50% across the country.

Almost three quarters of all deliberately lit fires in New Zealand are lit by young people and schools have been four times more likely to be targets of arson than most other buildings. This high incidence of arson traditionally increased over the November period as access to lighters/matches and fireworks proliferate in communities due to the celebration of Guy Fawkes. In New Zealand schools are considered a great resource for communities as people enjoy their sports fields, tennis courts and swimming pools. For most schools afterhours public exclusion is not desirable or even an option.

Because arson is common internationally there has been much work done by agencies around the world in an effort to address and reduce it. Experience shows that approaching the problem systematically can successfully reduce the likelihood of arson. Peter applied a model that uses four clear quadrants of focus built on the collective learning he had gained from studying effective arson reduction strategies used by fire services around the world.

Investigation

The effective determination of the origin and cause of fires is fundamental in the effort to reduce arson. This requires competent staff carrying out fire investigations supported with good training and equipment. Not all fires will be attended by the fire service so close liaison with other key stakeholders such as Police, security, insurers, business associations and land managers will help provide the necessary information to gain a comprehensive situational awareness. From experience the most effective investigations will occur where there is a coordinated and cooperative approach to fire investigations. Where practicable, the fire service should play a lead role in promoting cooperative and coordinated fire scene investigation practices.

Detection

Good reporting sits at the heart of effective detection, looking for both single incidence and emerging trends of arson. This requires agencies to allocate resources and time to analyse incoming fire investigation reports, fire data from agencies and other reporting sources. EAID (initially developed by Western Australia Fire Service and TRENZ by the New Zealand Fire Service are two excellent mapping and reporting tools that help analysts to identify patterns in terms of locations, dates, times, age, common phone numbers, target types and modus operandi.

Partnerships

History has repeatedly shown that the most effective arson reduction strategies involves coordinated and cooperative partnerships between government agencies, insurers, private industry and community groups. Many groups will have well established communication channels and influence within their own networks and can carry key messaging and education on managing arson reduction. Enlisting stakeholder representatives improves infiltration, awareness and adoption of effective mitigation strategies.

Education

This is the process of passing on the knowledge needed to reduce arson. Often these solutions are free or low cost and simple to implement. Key partnerships can be highly effective in placing this information into the hands of property managers and owners who need to know what they should do to target harden their premises against arson. Many fire agencies also support juvenile fire setting intervention programs, school fire safety education programs and the like that address improved fire behaviours for young people. The web and media are also powerful allies in communicating general arson mitigation measures, especially to wider communities.

Many school fires are started outside of the buildings using combustibles found nearby such as in bins. The fires quickly spread into the buildings after windows broke or cladding failed.

Many school fires are started outside of the buildings using combustibles found nearby such as in bins. The fires quickly spread into the buildings after windows broke or cladding failed.

The New Zealand Experience – Applying the Arson Reduction Model to Schools

A series of suspicious school fires (Investigation) in rapid succession prompted the New Zealand Fire Service Fire Research and Investigation Unit to analyse school fires throughout the country. The analysis (Reporting) showed there was a range of common factors across most schools fires.

Locally sourced combustibles

Most of the school fires were lit by young people who rarely transported fuels to the site. Instead they used locally sourced combustibles to set their fires. Whether the intention was to burn the school or just a reckless act of fire setting, the devastating result was the same. The upside to this common method of fire starting was that by removing easily sourced fuels, such as the contents of rubbish bins, cardboard and other items found around buildings, it was more difficult for fire setters to start fires and less likely for a small fire to develop into a structure fire. Schools were encouraged to secure rubbish bins away from school buildings and to empty them every night and before weekends. The research identified that “wheelie bins” featured commonly in school arsons as the point of origin. Once the contents are alight the plastic bin itself renders down and becomes a very significant fuel source.

Simply placing a chain through the handle and securing to it a pole can prevent bins from being wheeled against the side of buildings as happened at several schools in just one year alone.

Most school fires start externally

Securing windows and areas leading under buildings improves resistance to fire setting and its likelihood of spread.

Improved security lighting and lines of sight

Improving visibility around buildings was another simple, cost efficient but effective way to reduce deliberate fire setting on school grounds. Fire setters don’t want to be seen playing with fire or damaging buildings and will typically relocate away from places of visibility.

Fire history

Frequently after a major school fire, fire investigators find evidence of previous fire lighting and other vandalism that has occurred in the preceding days or weeks. Left untreated fire setting behaviour may lead to larger fires by unintended fire growth (once a fire is started it quickly develops beyond the fire setter’s ability to extinguish). As the fire setter’s confidence grows so too does the target size. Just as unattended broken windows at a school can lead to escalating vandalism so too can minor signs of fire lighting in and around a school escalate to major fires. Spent matches, melted playground equipment and burnt papers are all indicators of a potential large school fire in the future. Schools were also encouraged to engage with their immediate neighbours who could report when groups of young people were exhibiting unsafe behaviours. Increased police patrols during periods of high fire risk are also known to be an effective arson reduction measure.

Implementing the strategy

School fires were so common that many considered it the norm. “The first thing we had to do was dispel the myth that arson is inevitable” says Peter. We recognised that our usual statements about sprinklers and full fire protection, while technically accurate, were outside what most schools could afford for existing buildings and therefore failed to lead to action. So the Fire Service prepared a range of flyers and web material with simple low cost recommendations for schools to harden their premises against arson.

Peter engaged with staff from Ministry of Education property and communications groups, Police school liaison officers, the national School Trustees Association and the country wide School Principals Federation. These groups had well-established communication networks with schools so this connection provided us with highly effective, free or very cost effective access for our educational material.

A month before Guy Fawkes the material was sent out with remarkable results. That November New Zealand had the lowest number of school fires in the last decade. The low number was even below the normal monthly average throughout the year.

The graph above shows the spike in schools fires each November (red star), the impact of the initial arson reduction campaign in 2009 and the enduring impact across all months over subsequent years.

The education campaign through our partnerships has been continued every year since 2009 and the continued reduction in school arsons has now become the norm in New Zealand. While the arson reduction campaign focused on Guy Fawkes, the process of encouraging schools to practice improved fire safety hygiene has resulted in a decrease in schools fire throughout the year. With an annual reduction in loss of around $20 million annually, over the last six years this strategy has contributed to savings of around $120 million for our Ministry of Education.

Conclusion

Aiming to completely stop arson in most cases is unrealistic which perpetuates the myth that arson is evitable. It is acknowledged that the factors, motivators and methodologies that sit behind arson are wide and varied. However, by applying a systematic approach using a deliberate arson reduction strategy to understand and effectively address the contributing factors, the likelihood of being able significantly reduce arson fires is both realistic and achievable and can yield great results.

Myth BUSTED!

For more information, email Peter.Wilding@fire.org.nz

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Peter Wilding is the National Manager of Fire Investigation and Arson Reduction for the New Zealand Fire Service. Peter’s passion is to use learning from fires, other agencies and innovative technologies to reduce the loss, injuries and deaths caused by fires.