A program in Winchester relies on the premise that a young arsonist doesn’t necessarily grow up to become an old arsonist.
The diversion program, sparked by a run of fires started by juveniles three years ago, is called FIRE-CHIPS, which stands for Firesetter Children and Injury Prevention System. The Winchester Sun reports it allows first-time offenders to avoid charges if they complete certain educational requirements.
“The biggest thing is psychologists have found out juveniles that set fires have underlying issues,” said Lt. Rob Carmichael of the Winchester Fire Department. “We felt … this might be a program to have in place if we have a juvenile with the potential to be a serial arsonist.”
Organizers got some inspiration for the idea from a national training course on witness interrogation, in which they spent half a day interviewing juveniles convicted of arson.
Carmichael said the program is tailored to youngsters based on their age and risk level for setting future fires, which can range from curiosity to extreme risk. In the most severe cases, juveniles must go through counseling before starting the program.
Four youngsters _ including one 5-year-old offender _ have completed the program since its inception in 2008. The program is also starting to attract out-of-town referrals, including two in Madison County.
Older juveniles watch videos detailing the ugly results of arson and the effect on burn victims. Younger offenders practice identifying things that could burn them.
Major Greg Beam, one of the organizers, said there have been no repeat offenders. Participants can be volunteered by their parents or an outside agency.
“We see a (positive) change in the kids from the time they enter the program,” Beam said.
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