A picture of national inconsistency: Working with children and young people who set fires

The majority of UK fire and rescue services (FRSs) carry out frontline work with children and young people who set fires, yet no assessment framework exists to help staff identify the type of support needed or the level of firesetting risk presented. In light of this absence, a 2020 research study undertaken at the University of Cambridge explored what informs the decision-making of frontline staff when working with children and young people who set fires. A picture of national inconsistency emerged that has changed little since such gaps were first identified in 2005.

An evaluation of interventions for adults and children who set fires was published in March 2005 by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and established that no single approach was used in this work. The evaluation sought to address this inconsistency by recommending two distinct types of intervention when working with children and young people who set fires; one, an educational package and the second an approach described commonly as psychosocial interventions. The evaluation recommended that clear assessment procedures were needed to determine which intervention is required, because each approach requires different levels of expertise.

Fire safety education (FSE) demands the expert instruction of fire safety skills that raise awareness of the dangers of fires to children and young people, many of whom have significantly more extensive histories of trauma than children who do not set fires. Requiring a different level of specialism to FSE, psychosocial interventions seek to modify the parenting practices, family functions and children’s cognitive and behavioural responses that influence a child’s firesetting behaviour. Considering these differences in approach, the requirement to correctly identify the type of intervention needed is fundamental.

Yet in the intervening years since the 2005 evaluation, Fire Service practitioners still have no access to assessment tools that can help them identify which of the two distinct responses best serves a child’s firesetting risk. Against this context, the Cambridge study sought to scrutinise this previously unexplored area of FRS decision-making. It did so by asking the key question of how practitioners in UK FRSs identify children and young people requiring psychosocial interventions to address their firesetting behaviour. It further explored to what extent such decision-making can be considered defensible in the event of significant harm or death caused by a child-set fire.

A mixed-methods design was used to explore these questions, which included a national survey of all UK FRSs, face-to-face interviews with three senior managers from the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), a focus group held with seven frontline staff, and telephone interviews conducted with 20 frontline staff and managers. The collection and analysis of the different types of quantitative and qualitative data produced a diverse, rich and comprehensive set of findings. Crucially, the high levels of engagement in the study allow the findings to be generalisable across all the different UK FRSs.

The online survey distributed to all 53 UK FRSs received a 100 per cent response rate and established for the first time the scale of FRS firesetting interventions across the UK. It also captured the emerging theme of national inconsistencies in firesetting interventions, which would continue throughout the subsequent stages of the study.

The term ‘postcode lottery’ – that where you live defines the accessibility and quality of services available – is often used when discussing the public sector and was a theme that emerged early within the study. For some children, being identified for psychosocial interventions to address firesetting risk will be determined not by their presenting need but whether any firesetting intervention service exists. This is because two UK FRSs do not offer any interventions for children and young people setting fires, with lack of capacity and small size of the FRS cited as the reason why (see Table 1 below).

Number of UK fire and rescue services (FRSs) (N = 53); online survey results (N = 53)




Number of FRSs providing intervention service for children and young people (CYP) who set fires



CYP referred to other services for support when no FRS intervention available



In the absence of FRS interventions, CYP referred to:


• Children and Families Social Care



• Other FRS



Reasons given for lack of FRS intervention services:


• Small size of FRS



• Limited capacity




Table 1 – Availability of UK FRS firesetting interventions

Of these two FRSs, one makes no onward referral for support for these children, ultimately meaning that this FRS makes no identification of risk regarding firesetting behaviour by children and young people. This absence in provision raises an immediate moral and ethical question about the equity of treatment some families receive, as where they live will exclude them from services routinely found elsewhere in the UK.

In contrast, the 51 UK FRSs providing FSE interventions are largely well established, with two FRSs having delivered this service for over 30 years (see Table 2). Of these 51 FRSs, four provide psychosocial interventions in addition to FSE, with one FRS delivering this additional provision for over 20 years. Again, the availability of support – FSE or psychosocial – was determined by geography not presenting risk and served to provide a further example of the inconsistencies in national service delivery.


Fire safety education (FSE)

FSE and psychosocial interventions

Type of FRS intervention provided








More than 30yrs

Length of time FRS has provided FSE interventions (n=51)





Length of time FRS has provided PS interventions (n=4)






Table 2 – Type of UK FRS firesetting interventions

All four of the FRSs delivering psychosocial interventions had trained their staff for this work, but this was not in evidence among all the FRSs providing the specialism of FSE. Alarmingly, there are five UK FRSs that do not train staff for their firesetting intervention work. Quite apart from this being another example of national inconsistency, it highlights a concerning vulnerability in defensible decision-making should a firesetting case go ‘wrong’.

In the event of the death or significant harm of a child or young person known to public services, professional decisions are deemed defensible if it can be demonstrated that all reasonable steps were taken in the assessment and management of the presenting risk. A key tenet of defensible decision-making includes practitioners with the appropriate levels of knowledge and skill to do a role. Without training to develop such knowledge and skill, it is difficult to see how FRSs can prove efficacy in their decision-making when identifying firesetting risk and need.

Where staff are trained, it is this training, their experience and an “appetite for risk” (as described by an NFCC senior manager with responsibility for firesetting interventions nationally) that informs how FRSs identify those children and young people requiring psychosocial interventions. While it is accepted that experience gradually shapes the development of high-level and complex skills, such decision-making is ultimately impeded by the limitations of natural human error and bias. This recognised limitation in decision-making, which is already exacerbated by the absence of formalised firesetting risk assessments, is further compounded for those FRSs who do not have written policies in place.

The Cambridge study confirmed that 18 per cent of FRSs have no internal written policy for their firesetting intervention work, thereby making it impossible for practitioners to evidence that their decision-making is in line with expected protocols. The reasons given for this absence were consistent with those cited for lack of staff training: not a service priority (see Table 3).




Number of FRS interventions (n=51) with a written juvenile firesetting intervention policy



Reasons given for absence of written juvenile firesetting intervention policy:

• Currently under development


• Lack of resources


• Not important and not a service priority


• Not enough children with the need


• Current policy out of date



Table 3 – FRS firesetting intervention policies

The vulnerability posed by this absence in procedure did not appear to be understood at the highest levels of FRS accountability. One of the NFCC senior managers with responsibility for firesetting interventions nationally commented that practitioners’ decision-making can ultimately be defended in the event of a fatality because: “We can put our hand on our heart and say that staff do the best they can based on the training that they get.”

Sadly, the killing of Peter Connolly (‘Baby P’) in 2007 and the 72 people killed in the Grenfell Tower fire ten years later have evidenced how deaths considered by the public to be errors in professional judgement can lead to the scapegoating of individual practitioners, often for something that is not their fault.

When considering this harsh reality whereby any death in the public domain can be chargeable to someone, it is perhaps of little surprise that every frontline practitioner interviewed and who took part in the focus group talked about the pains of this work. Despite their clear passion and commitment to this work, when free of the professional requirement to hide the more negative and even harmful feelings of their role, the emotions flowed. All those interviewed relayed firesetting cases that included traumatic events such as child sexual abuse, the physical abuse of children and child criminal exploitation. Two of the 20 practitioners interviewed by telephone revealed that they had been directly involved in the cases of children and young people that had gone on to kill or be killed.

However, this emotional toll was reported as largely invisible among colleagues and senior managers. In addition to commenting that firefighters often do not know that firesetting intervention teams exist, it was expressed that senior managers do not show much concern or care for this work, or the people who deliver it. For one participant, this was because the work is done by “a low-life like me, a non-uniformed bloody woman.”

Yet amid the palpable and understandable raw emotion expressed by many study participants, there existed a procedural insight whereby practitioners highlighted three key areas as most useful in the identification of firesetting risk. Namely, and in order of importance as identified by the study participants, a risk assessment tool, training and national written guidance.

In seeking to identify how UK FRS practitioners identify children and young people whose firesetting risk requires psychosocial interventions, this study evidenced three clear themes:

  • Inconsistencies in service provision
  • An absence of defensible decision-making
  • The emotional toll of working with children and young people who set fires.

Broadly, these findings support existing theories on the need for assessment tools to better identify risk and enhance interventions. They also serve as a reminder, if one were needed, that deaths caused by fire are subject to hindsight scrutiny, and any absences in training and policies will be found wanting. Finally, the findings confirm that the emotional residue that comes from the exposure to the trauma of others is not solely carried by those fighting fires, but also those charged with the responsibility of stopping them.

Upon reflection of these findings, it appears incumbent on the NFCC in its professional role of driving UK FRS improvements to respond to the three key areas identified by its workforce in this study. Firstly, the introduction of a firesetting risk assessment tool for use by FRS practitioners; second, the need for mandatory training for staff delivering firesetting interventions; and third, the existence of national written guidance that specifically addresses firesetting risk.

To embody the wider themes identified in the study, training needs to include the areas of defensible decision-making and practitioner self-care as ways of equipping staff to carry the risk-critical choices and emotional burdens that come with their role. Similarly, with the NFCC a signatory of the Public Health England mental health concordat, it would be appropriate for any national guidance to mandate supervision for practitioners; a reflective space that can help safeguard both their emotional wellbeing and the quality of their decision-making.

In conclusion, it is important to note that the introduction of a firesetting assessment tool does not offer a panacea. Practitioners and policy makers must always hold as truth our children and young people are not members of aggregate groups needing to be held accountable for their actions, but individuals deserving of being supported and cared for, and whose strengths and abilities are as recognised as their risks and needs.

However, when determining the support and care needed, the decision-making of FRSs can no longer depend upon the subjective predictions of individual practitioners. Instead, decision-making must be informed by professional, structured judgements that use evidence-based risk assessments. By so doing, we can better serve our children and young people who are setting fires, and the dedicated workforce responsible for their safety.

About the Author

Joanna Foster is the Managing Director of fabtic, which specialises in juvenile firesetting behaviour. Her book Children and Teenagers Who Set Fires: Why they do it and how to help was published in 2019. For more information about fabtic, including training, supervision and consultancy services, email: [email protected]; tel: 020 7249 0652; visit: www.fabtic.co.uk

To obtain a copy of Joanna’s thesis or find out more about her research, email: [email protected]

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