"Fire makes for a good servant, but a bad master" (Roger L'Estrange)
Arsonists are a varied group of offenders who come from different backgrounds, but the common denominator is that they take enjoyment out of seeing things destroyed by fire or burning. They even take joy in the aftermath of a burning; i.e., after things have been burned. The emphasis on burning is clearly evident in the FBI definition of arson as "any willful or malicious burning or attempting to burn, with or without intent to defraud." As DeHaan (2002) points out, the burning is started with malice. There is a specific intent to destroy property. Likewise, the term "firesetting" (typically reserved for describing juveniles or adolescents) conveys a sense of malicious intent (usually in chronic, repetitive behavior) far greater than the term "fireplay" (typically reserved for young juveniles) which conveys a lesser degree of malice or intent (Putnam & Kirkpatrick 2005). Note also that the law specifies "willful" in conjunction with malicious, so this means that, at least in terms of legal definitions, there is a presumption that all perpetrators of arson are sane.
That being said, most juvenile fire-setting is usually a product of antisocial personality (Forehand et al. 1991) while juvenile fireplay is usually a product of curiosity or recklessness (Cox-Jones et al. 1990). Adult arson is usually a product of vanity or egocentricity (Orr 1989). When the perpetrator is male, the motivation is more cold-blooded or instrumental; and when the perpetrator is female, the motivation is more hot-blooded, emotional, or affective (Gannon 2010). Professor James Ogloff, director of the Centre for Forensic Science at Monash University in Australia, says the profile of a typical fire setter is male, late teens/early 20s, unattractive, unmarried, shy, socially isolated, and with lower intelligence. About a third of perpetrators have co-morbid psychiatric conditions including schizophrenia, and mood and/or personality disorders (usually narcissism). About half have prior criminal convictions. One of the more curious clinical characteristics is the apparent lack of motive (typically reserved for the so-called pyromaniac). No arsonist shows remorse, but only the pyromaniac lacks conscious motivation although they are fully aware of the acts they are committing. It's as if their mind "blocks off" or conceals short-term memory of whatever rational thought they put into their devious plans. For this reason, clinicians often characterize the motivation as a combination of pathological and non-pathological.
For both arsonists and fire setters, fire is an instrument of power and a weapon on choice. It is the instrument they believe helps them get ahead in life or at least create a sense of control and/or power that they find absent in their lives. It is for this reason that most perpetrators come from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Such people look upon fire as the ultimate weapon, the kind which can be used for both instrumental and expressive purposes. Setting a fire for instrumental purposes (to achieve a goal) has been less studied than setting fire to fulfill some pathological, expressive need. It has been found that arsonists and firesetters have co-occurring psychopathologies, such as antisocial behavior, sexual promiscuity, substance abuse, and cigarette smoking; and that these correlates have far more predictive validity than the ones once thought associated, like bedwetting and cruelty to animals (Slavkin 2000).
Most psychological profiles are drawn from clinical assessments of captured offenders (Kolko 2002), and by best estimates, may only account for 40% of all known offenders. Also, it is usually admitted that significant overlap may exist between "types" of offenders. For example, the clinical literature recognized four (4) types of firesetters, as follows:
curious -- uses fire out of fascination
pathological -- uses fire out of deep-seated individual dysfunction
expressive -- uses fire as a cry for help or to vent emotions
delinquent -- uses fire for antisocial or destructive ends
The most common overlap is between the expressive and delinquent types. The distinguishing characteristic may be stress. A truly "expressive" type would likely have accumulated enough stress in their life (or led an uneventful life) so that they seek to vent frustration. However, such motives are also typically associated with vandalism and shoplifting, and it is unknown why some choose one path over another. A truly "delinquent" type enjoys the power which comes from seeing a substantial reaction or response, such as the arrival of police and fire departments (Macht & Mack 1968). Curious types can be easily persuaded about the dangers of firesetting. Pathological types need treatment, and there is some controversy over what is the best mental health treatment.
Among adult arsonists, pathological types are not impossible, but most typological efforts have been restricted to sorting out key types which are significantly different from the pyromaniac (Lewis and Yarnell 1951; Rider 1980), as follows:
jealousy motivated -- uses fire to get back at some insult to his vanity
pseudo hero -- uses fire to rush in and make a rescue, save a life, etc.
fire buff -- like a police groupie, only with firefighters
excitement oriented -- uses fire out of boredom (like the expressive type) and simple methods
pyromaniac -- uses fire repeatedly as a kind of neurotic obsessive-compulsive behavior
The definition of pyromania has changed considerably over time. One of the many paradoxes in criminology is that pyromaniacs have long been seen as acting without any "apparent motive." Clearly, it involves an impulse control problem, and often, a pyromaniac will tell you that they didn't really want to hurt anybody or destroy anything; they simply wanted to achieve their "high" of fascination by watching something burn. There is much we don't understand about pyromaniacs. Geller et al. (1997) say that to make a psychological diagnosis of one, they must meet five criteria:
deliberate firesetting on multiple occasions
tension or arousal before setting the fire
feeling of relief or pleasure while setting the fire or watching afterward
an intense interest or obsession with fire and its associated characteristics
absence of any other motivating factors (e.g., money, revenge) for setting the fire
Holmes and Holmes (2009) provide a good overview of the common elements in the profile of a typical pyromaniac, adapted as follows:
Profile of a Pyromaniac
|Age, Race, Gender, Intelligence||ages 16-28, White, Male, range from mental defective to genius|
|Physical defects, Mental disorders||frequently present, psychopathy, obsessive-compulsive pattern|
|Academic adjustment||underachiever, some intellectual brightness, but performance marginal|
|Family background||unhappy home life, harsh, inconsistent, or neglectful parenting|
|Social class background||most from middle or upper levels, some lower|
|Social, marital, sexual adjustment||severe interpersonal problems, poor marriages, sexual maladjustments|
|Occupational history||resentful over only having had subservient positions|
|Criminal history||delinquency, runaway, burglary, theft, other property offenses|
|Personality||misfit, feeble, a physical coward, feelings of inadequacy, introverted, reclusive, lonely, wounded self-esteem, craving for power and prestige, inability to express remorse, ambivalent toward authority|
|Motives||desire to be center of attention, render themselves useful, and show themselves clever|
|Triggering events||accumulation of stress, frustration, tension, loss of employment, death of loved one, threat to sense of potency|
Pyromaniacs typically set fires in haste or in a disorganized manner (although organized, older types exist who use elaborate incendiary devices), and are also known to enjoy setting off false alarms. Their activity is nocturnal. They have little regard for human life; i.e., it doesn't matter if the property is occupied or not. At the time of setting the fire, pyromaniacs would describe a kind of trance-like state comes over them, almost as if they were controlled by an external force. After setting the fire, pyromaniacs would describe a sense of relief. Some enjoy playing detective at the fire scene. Most, except for the jealousy-motivated or revenge-oriented types, will frequently return to the crime scene. Some even turn themselves into the police. They often readily confess or admit guilt, although they express no remorse or regret. They are usually cooperative under arrest.
Other researchers (Kocsis & Cooksey 2002) have tried to narrow down the profile of a serial arsonist. There are not only many kinds of offenders, but multiple offenses by the same offender. Arsonists typically commit nearly a hundred arsons before getting caught. Numerous motives compel arson: financial reward, politics, concealment of another crime, attention seeking, revenge, and anger. A fundamental tenet of behavioral profiling is that if you know the what and why, the who will follow. Therefore, sometimes behavioral profilers are called in to testify during an arson trial. They usually present research findings which suggest a profile of the typical arsonist as someone who may be seriously mentally ill and/or intoxicated at the time of the offense, which can be argued as mitigating responsibility. A full-blown pyromania defense (or claim of pyromania) doesn't work in court. That's because, in the forensic setting, pyromania is quite rare. It's far better to simply use the phrase "serial arsonist," but the characteristics for that are somewhat different. Sapp et al. (1997) found most serial arsonists were white males around the age of 27, with a tenth grade level education and almost all had prior arrests and convictions. Below is a summary of the emerging profiling characteristics for serial arsonists:
Profile of a Serial Arsonist
AGE: 10-14 (26%), majority under
18 (51%) if adult, late 20s, never over 35 if adult, revenge or profit
Serial arson is defined as an offense involving three or more fires with a significant cooling off period between the fires. The exact length of this cooling off period is unknown. Douglas et al. (1997:186-7) say the cooling off period may last days, weeks, or even years. Serial arson is also different from double arson, triple arson, spree arson, and mass arson. What all these different types have in common is the repetitive nature of the crime.
SAMPLE INTERVIEW WITH A SERIAL ARSONIST
I (Interviewer): What do you think gets kids in trouble?
A COMPARISON OF ARSONISTS AND RAPISTS
-Nation’s fastest-growing crime.
-50% of all fires (incendiary & suspicious), determined by ruling out other factors: electrical, accidential, natural, unknown
-Legal elements: burning, intent, malice
-Characteristics of "firesetters":
AGE: 10-14 (26%), majority under 18 (51%) if adult, late 20s, never over 35 if adult, revenge or profit motive
SEX: 9 out of 10 times (90%) a male; if female, revenge type
RACE: 3 out of 4 times (75%) a white; black (20%) of time if first-timer; Native Americans 3rd largest group
CLASS: majority from lower to working class; middle class if vandalism or excitement
IQ: vast majority subnormal (70-90) with 22% in retarded range (below 70), rare genius
FAMILY: absent or abusive father, history of emotional problems with family/mother
SCHOOL: learning problems and usually held back a grade in school, normally in 10th grade; younger (grades 6-8) if vandalism
PEERS: social misfit, interpersonal problems with opposite sex, appears physically and emotionally weak compared to peers
WORK: usually chooses subservient position and then resents it (both ambivalent and resentful toward authority-repressed); unemployed if vandal, excite, or profit
CRIMINAL HISTORY: numerous status offenses as juvenile, property crimes, almost all have arrest records
DRUG/ALCOHOL: no problem
MENTAL: lack of remorse may appear as psychopathy, but more typically result of obsessive-compulsive disassociative trance-like state during firesetting
ARREST: majority remain at crime scene except revenge, conceal, profit types; some attempt suicide in lockup; most easily confess thru cooperation
TYPES other than concealers or for profit (who constitute 22% of total):
ARSON FOR REVENGE (41%) - precipitating factor is a real or imagined affront that occured months or years ago; attack is focused on individual rivals, a business chain, schools, or some facilities connected with offender
ARSON FOR EXCITEMENT (30%) - precipitating factor is boredom, (sexual) thrill cycle, or need for attention; attack is focused on large or outdoor targets, like parks, construction sites, arenas, as well as residential areas
ARSON FOR VANDALISM (7%) - precipitating factor is family disturbance or peer pressure; attack if usually focused on educational facility as well as residences and outdoors
ARSON FOR PROFIT (5%)
ARSON FOR CRIME CONCEALMENT (17%)
-One of world’s first felonies; for many years, only crime to have a nonconsent factor; filled with cultural overtones
-Statistics misleading: time clock method estimates beating against woman every 20 seconds, rape every 20 minutes
-Apprehension rates high and conviction rates low
-Nonreporting problem before "shield laws"; estimates were that less than 10% of rapes were reported
-Fairly constant 15% false reporting rate
-Characteristics of rapists:
AGE: 75% under age 25, 80% under age 30; over 30 if sadistic type
SEX: male normally 100% of the time
RACE: Vast majority are black (75-90% of rapists in prison are black); crime tends to be intra-racial; rapists are usually unarmed; 1 in 4 times (25%) uses a knife or instrument.
CLASS: majority are from poverty-lower class backgrounds
IQ: majority in normal range 90-110
FAMILY: sibling history more important than family history, may have been sibling bed sharing, overt sexual behavior in family with siblings and/or (sadistic) mother; lack of support from (absent) father; temper tantrums as child
SCHOOL: usually no learning problems and typically a high school graduate; some college possible; discipline problems likely, most likely involving pornography interest
PEERS: mild to moderate social maladjustments, but normally one of the "boys"; tries to cultivate a reputation as a tough fighter, but known as a punk and low life to many; usually married, divorced, or lives with a women, in that order, but has demonstrated poor relations with women
WORK: majority work reliably around women; lack self-confidence to improve self; if sadistic, takes better job
CRIMINAL HISTORY: majority are successful at avoiding this; average of 2.5 priors, only 2 years served on each
DRUG/ALCOHOL: noted problems in this area
MENTAL: antisocial personality; defines self as normal in every way except sexually, where suffers a known philia or mania; ritualism may border on psychotic with sadistic type
ARREST: frequently leaves clues with victim; plays games with police; difficult to get confession
TYPES based on Hale’s research, not Scully’s:
POWER REASSURANCE (30%) - precipitating factor is lonliness and lack of self-esteem on 7-15 day cycle; neighborhood nonviolent attacks; keeps souvenirs, thinks victim liked it
POWER ASSERTIVE (30%) - precipitating factor is desire to dominate an impersonal sex partner on 20-25 day cycle; cruises singles bars, acts macho; may repeat on same victim
ANGER RETALIATION (24%)- precipitating factor is perceived injustice at hands of women on 6-12 month cycle; sees self as athletic and masculine, action-oriented; uses blitz attack
SADISTIC (16%)- precipitating factor is need to express fantasy; compulsive in personal appearance; carries rape kit; learns better ways to stalk, and will eventually kill
C.I.S. Fire & Arson Investigations Website
Combatting the Nation's Arson Problem
FEMA's NAPI: Subject Matter: Arson
Fire and Arson Investigation Resource Page
IAAI's Fire Investigator's Checklist
Legal Admissibility of Arsonist Profiling
MegaLinks Lecture on Arson Investigation
Scope Blog Entry on Motivations for Fire Setting
Strawberry Pop-Tarts as Incendiary Devices
The Terrorist's Handbook (web edition)
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DeHaan, J. (2002). Kirk's Fire Investigation, 5e. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.
Douglas, J., Bergess, A., Burgess, A. & Ressler, R. (1997). Crime classification manual. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Forehand, R., Wierson, M., Frame, C., Kempton, T. & Aristead, L. (1991). "Juvenile firesetting: A unique syndrome of an advanced study of antisocial behavior." Behavioral Research Therapy 29: 125-28.
Gannon, T. (2010). "Female arsonists: Key features, psychopathologies and treatment needs." Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes: 73, 173-189.
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Holmes, R. & Holmes, S. (2009). Profiling Violent Crimes: An Investigative Tool, 4e. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
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Macht, L. & Mack, J. (1968). "The firesetter syndrome." Psychiatry 31: 277-88.
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Orr, J. (1989). "Profiles in arson: The vanity firesetter." American Fire Journal, July: 24-27.
Parenteau, R. (2012). "Serial arson." Pp. 124-144 in K. Borgeson & K. Kuehnle (eds.) Serial Offenders. Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett.
Putnam, C. & Kirkpatrick, J. (2005). "Juvenile firesetting: A research overview." OJJDP Bulletin [pdf available online]
Rider, A. (1980). "The firesetter: A psychological profile." FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 49: 7-17.
Sapp, A., Huff, T., Gary, G. and Icove, D. (1994). "A motive-based offender analysis of serial arsonists." Interfire website.
Slavkin, M. (2000). "Enuresis, firesetting, and cruelty to animals: Does the ego triad show predictive validity?" Adolescence 36(143): 461-66.
Last updated: Mar. 05, 2012
Not an official webpage of APSU, copyright restrictions apply, see Megalinks in Criminal Justice
Citation: O'Connor, T. (2012). "Arsonists and Firesetters," MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. Retrieved from http://www.drtomoconnor.com/4050/4050lect04a.htm.