FAS and Fire Safety
by Teresa Kellerman and Suzy Lucier

Recently I wrote an article about the possibility that Leonard Gregg, the young man who started the Rodeo fire in the White Mountains of Arizona, might have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) or Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). I immediately heard from parents of children with FASD who told stories of how these kids liked to start fires, play with matches, etc., apparently unaware of the risk, in spite of warnings and lessons about safety. Even before the Rodeo fire, I knew of several families who had lost their homes to fires that were started by their alcohol affected children. One was intentional, the others were accidents. One of my favorite parents had an experience with a child with FAS who was a fire starter. She was successful in redirecting his interest in fire and dissuading him from further risky behavior. I asked her to share her story so that others might learn and apply her method of handling this difficult obsession that seems to be so common with our kids. --Teresa

Some of you may have trouble with your kids starting fires. I had the same problem a few years ago, when one of my boys set fire to the side of the house. Mike was 10 and Lucas was 12. (I was told that firestarting behavior occurs more often with kids between 8 and 15.) Both boys were diagnosed with FAS, but they have normal IQ and are relatively good kids.

I had gone out for the very first time by my self and left my kids at home alone. I figured I'd only be gone about 20-25 minutes and it would be good practice. WRONG! I was gone the planned 20 minutes, but when I returned, Mike had set fire to the back of the house and my older boy, Lucas, was standing there in shock, holding the hose, and smoke was drifting up from the now "out" fire. I stood there with my jaw hanging open and letting my imagination run wild, thinking about all the "what if's."

I was so freaked out and angry, I thought the first thing to so was put distance between Mike and me, so I told him to go to his room till I could calm down. After a while of deep breathing, this is what I decided to do.

First, I called the fire department and said I needed an inspector to come out to the house to view the damage. I had Mike meet him at the door and tell him what he had done and walk him to the back and show the inspector his handy work. I had the fire inspector tell Mike exactly what the damage was and how much it would cost to fix. The inspector explained to Mike that our insurance wouldn't cover it as it was deliberately set. The inspector was quite graphic in his explanation and even ripped off a couple of boards to show Mike the internal damage. Mike was very surprised at the extent of the damage.

Then I put in a call to the Fire Chief and asked him what the Fire Department does about kids who set fires. I was told that there was a program for "first time offenders." The program quite good. It was to take place for 4 hours one afternoon. There were videos of fires spreading in houses and how fast they roar through. It showed houses burning up in seconds -- very dramatic. There was a video about a fire fighter who had been severely burned fighting a fire. He was pretty horribly disfigured and the fire fighter talked about how this had affected his life. In the same film, there were interviews with children in a burn unit of a hospital. Scary stuff but then setting fires is pretty scary too. It was only shown with parents' permission. There was another video about what to do in case of a fire -- the stop, drop and roll drill -- as well as things like meeting places after getting out, crawling under smoke, having smoke alarms, etc., and the drills were practiced after the film was over.

I wanted Mike to know how serious all this was. I told him that his actions could be very dangerous to not only himself but to all who might be around him. Using this theme, I made him call up all his buddies (mostly cousins and friends) and tell them what he had done and invite them to attend the fire safety program with him. So on the appointed day, after getting parents' permission, 12 kids showed up at the fire department headquarters and went through the program together. The fireman conducting the program announced that he was glad to see so many people who cared about Mike were there to help him learn and that each and every child in the room was responsible for helping Mike stay away from fire. Each child was instructed, in Mike's presence, on what they were to do if they ever saw Mike with matches or in the act of setting a fire. The kids were "youngish," about 8 through 12, but they took their new job seriously. At the end of the program, Mike was given a certificate saying he had been through the program and signed a pledge to stay away from fire and to be responsible to call the Fire Department if he ever saw a fire.

The fireman who conducted the program was then "assigned" to Mike, and Mike had to call him once a week for a month and report on how he was doing. The fireman also called Mike every once in a while just to chat and let Mike know that he was his special friend and that Mike could call him anytime he had thoughts of fire starting and needed to talk.

I must say, Mike was mighty impressed with all of this, and took very seriously his new responsibility to the fire department and to his personal friend in the department.

Further, I told Mike that when he did something like this, he not only hurt his family and himself, but the community as well. And so he needed to make restitution to the community for that. I called the Parks Department, the City Volunteers Office and the Department of Environmental Services. It was hard to find someone willing to do it, but finally got one of the departments to assign Mike to clean a certain part of a certain alley in the city that was always a mess and an eyesore. So every Saturday for the next 3 months, he had to get up early and go clean this part of the alley. It was pretty stinky work -- no fun at all -- but after a while, Mike started calling this "his alley," and took a lot of pride in seeing it change from a trashy place to one that was neat and clean. Of course, Mike was way too little to do this by himself, so his dad had to get up every Saturday and go with Mike. His dad saw to it that Mike wore gloves and generally didn't get himself into any more trouble. During the clean up time, there was lots of talk about responsibility and community service and taking care of the place in which one lives.

I have to say, all this took quite a bit of effort on the part of many people. The Fire Department, the fireman, the Office of Environmental Services, all his cousins, siblings, parents and friends. But I believe it was well worth it. Mike has never set another fire, and he is absolutely religious about turning in any found matches to me and also in instructing his younger cousins and friends about fire safety.

I recall someone on the list lately talking about how these children are all of society's children. And I believe she was right. As Hilary said, it takes a village to raise a child. I truly believe this, and so look to the community for solutions. I want my children to understand that not only is the community there to help them, but that they have a responsibility as community members to help safe guard the place in which they live. And I believe that it is very healthy and empowering feeling like you are a part of something bigger than yourself.

I hope this helps some of you. Not all the exact ideas will work for you. But I hope you can take some of the basic ideas and expand or change them to fit your needs. Maybe you won't be able to work something out with your city, but there are dozens of community volunteer programs that could use help. Every city has a fire department and if they are called, they probably have something with which to help. Or if you are very rural, perhaps there is a volunteer fire department that could provide some assistance. And there are usually some friends or family around that would be willing to be supportive in some way. Use what ever resources that you might be able to find. They can be public or private -- whatever. The more support, the better.

Many hugs to you all,
Suzy in Phoenix

Fire Safety Checklist
  • Are matches and lighters out of reach? This means LOCKED UP, not just put up high where you think they can't reach, or hidden where you think they won't find them. They will!
  • Do you have smoke alarms installed? Are there enough? Are they working?
  • Do you talk about "what if" with your kids? Talking often about consequences of actions helps our kids to make this connection a little better. Asking "what if" is mental habit you can encourage with frequent conversations about risky behavior and dangerous situations.
  • Do you have a fire emergency exit plan? If not, call your local fire department and they will send you a brochure.
  • Do you supervise your children's play? When they are alone in their room, when they have friends over, or when they go to visit someone else's house - these are all situations that could present an opportunity for risky behavior. They need an external brain to be safe. That means close supervision, especially if they have a history of impulsive behavior and poor judgment.
  • Don't take any unnecessary chances. It's just not worth it.
  • Do your children know basic fire safety rules? Do you? Learn Here!

    This web page www.come-over.to/FAS/firestarters.htm was last revised November 8, 2002
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