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Fire is not a toy - Teaching the dangers of fire

By:  Star Beacon - Lisa Davis

Children don't always understand the dangers or consequences of playing with fire and for many years fire departments in the area and nationwide have been trying to educate the young. There are several programs fire departments use to teach children and adults about fire safety. One of these programs is the Juvenile Fire Setters Program, which is a more individualized program. Children range in age from two-years-old to 17-years-old.

The Geneva and Ashtabula Fire Departments started the program in the late 1980's. The program is designed for children who may have set a fire that the fire department had to respond or the parents have noticed their child is interested in fire and are concerned, said Geneva Firefighter Dale Arkenburg. The program is for children who don't know the proper use of fire or the consequences of their action when setting a fire, he said. There are several ways a child may be referred for the special program. The referred could come from the schools, fire department, court system, parents, police and juvenile councilors, said Ashtabula Fire Fighter John Paul.

Many times the fire department has responded to a trash, house or woods fire and the juvenile has been identified as setting that fire, Paul said. There are a multitude of ways children are sent to the program, Arkenburg said. "The bottom line is children shouldn't be playing with fire," Arkenburg said. A problem with younger children is they don't understand the consequences of setting fire and the older children know those consequences and think they can control the fire, Arkenburg said.

Once a child has been referred, there is a screening process or initial visit. At that time, it is determined if the child needs education only or counseling from a mental health professional as well, Arkenburg said. Both fire fighters definitely agree that parent or guardian participation is key to the program being a success for the child. Ashtabula Fire Department in a year usually has a dozen children who complete the program, while about double of that number doesn't, Paul said. The reason is the parents lack of participation, he said. Arkenburg relies on the parents to oversee the child at home and reinforce what has been taught, he said.

During the education portion of the program both departments use literature, drawings, videos, home escape plans and items recovered from an actual fire to educate the child. These are not scare tactics, but are used more to get the child to understand what could happen, Paul said. The practical portion is done at home and can consist of counting smoke alarms or fire extinguishers or actually following the fire escape plan, Arkenburg said. "There are a host of exercise to in grain into the child the dangers of fires," Arkenburg said. Written and verbal testing is done at the beginning, middle and end of the program to see if the child is learning, he said. The program usually last from one to two months depending on the family schedule. Arkenburg and Paul said one visit can be from a half hour to and hour long.

In the five years conducting the program, Arkenburg said usually there are five to seven cases a year that participate in the program in Geneva. To his knowledge there have been no repeat offenders who have completed the program. Paul said the same of Ashtabula's program. "We know if the children do not get help, 80 percent will continue with the behavior," Arkenburg said. "In all likelihood they won't stop on their own." Arkenburg is presently the only fire fighter at Geneva who is certified to conduct the program. At Ashtabula, besides Paul there are five other fire fighters trained, he said. The program is a statewide program and Arkenburg, Paul and the other firefighters are certified in conducting the program as well as other fire safety programs the departments do throughout the year.

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