Arson Prevention Forum

47% of all fires attended by fire and rescue services in England

are classed as deliberate

Forensic Psychology

It has been clarified that motives for acts of arson vary (e.g., vandalism, excitement, financial gain, revenge, extremism, and crime concealment) although to understand those which result in the most financial and human destruction, it is critical to consider psychological and mental health considerations from childhood and how it is possible to develop intervention and awareness programmes that reduce the trajectory of individuals toward a pathological interest in fire.

Largely successful approaches to arson prevention have to date focused on individuals in regard of anti-social behaviour / vandalism and enabled locations which are at a higher risk to be target hardened to reduce damage and for the tailoring of education and awareness campaigns more broadly. However, when considering youth offending in terms of vandalism and other destructive acts involving fire, it is important to understand the psychology of those engaging in such acts and that there is the potential for the engagement with fire at the level of an anti-social disposition to develop into something pathological and enduring.

When arson is used as a method of crime concealment, the focus of the fire is merely instrumental and therefore not part of a wider interest in fire as a weapon, instead to increase the likelihood of success in achieving the intended criminal act. As such, this type of use of fire is difficult to detect and is often not recorded in regard of index offences of those convicted, the likely offence being the primary focus of the offender, such as murder, fraud or theft. This has an impact on gathering statistics where fire is used as a weapon or to cover up broader offending acts.

One of the motives less understood in regard of arson is committed by individuals who have a need to express an intolerable emotional state (e.g., anger, cry for help, attention) whether in response to present circumstances or residual impact from past adverse experiences. Much of the focus of arson in such cases is to feel a sense of empowerment and control over personal circumstances or experience a sense of gratification. However, such behaviour can also have links to mental health whether mental illness or personality disorder and can be understood in relation to the development of interest in fire from childhood onwards. Offenders who develop into serial arsonists often vary in motive across fire setting but the purpose of the arson and the needs being met is illustrative of their psychological state. This can also include deriving excitement from setting fire which can become an enduring motive but should be considered along with other factors.

Early intervention is critical in regard of understanding the development of individuals who use fire as a means of expression and engage in such serious longer-term offending. The relationship between adverse childhood events and the challenges individuals have in regulating subsequent difficult emotional states is therefore key to understand. The life histories of convicted arsonists, male or female, is often characterised by a range of events which have not been dealt with in a manner that enables the individual to develop resilience to later life events. This increases the need to act on emotional states which are challenging or intolerable, whether through violence, sexual violence, arson or a combination. Early intervention programmes designed to effect behavioural change may be effective if supported by appropriate professional support.  

Understanding the personality and mental health considerations in addition to the motives for arson and the mind set / perspectives of offenders is therefore critical to any development of awareness and reduction programmes. When not financially or instrumentally focused, arson is largely about an emotional state in the offender concerned and the accompanying needs that are being met through the act of arson. Identifying the routes and roots of these challenging and sometimes intolerable emotional states is therefore key to understanding and reducing this offence.