City fire inspector works with juveniles who set fires in prevention program

LANCASTER − There are several reasons why children set fires.

"They could be doing it for curiosity," city fire inspector Adam Hetterle said. "They could be doing it just to gain attention. It could be a response to something traumatizing that happened in the past or is currently happening and this is a response to what's going on."

Hetterle is also an intervention specialist for the local Youth Firestarter Intervention Program. It has about 15 members across the county, with Hetterle being the only member from the city fire department. He counseled seven youths last year.

"If a child is being sexually abused and they're setting fires on their bed or they set their bed on fire or certain clothing on fire, that might be a sign that there's abuse or something's going on," he said. "We will dig into that and try to get other agencies involved to help us with it."

Hetterle usually works with children up to age 17 with the youngest he's dealt with being 7. He said there are children even younger than that who have played with fire out of curiosity.

"They're either referred through the juvenile court through a diversion program," he said. "These are kids that set something on fire and in lieu of charges they have the option to go through this program. Or we have family stop in and they're worried because they've seen burnt papers around the house or burnt leaves outside where they witnessed the child do something and they're concerned."

For those in the diversion program, Hetterle makes sure they know why they are there.

"They're there in lieu of charges," he said. "If they don't participate in the program, then it goes back to the court system and they're going going to get charged for what they did."

Children only go through the intervention program once.

"It's no, we've been here," Hetterle said. "If you've done something wrong and now you're facing charges, I can't do anything to keep you out of that now."

Not all the children have started fires, however. One child last year got mad at his phone and hit it with a hammer in school and damaged the battery. A couple students had to go to the hospital for smoke inhalation treatment.

"Not a big incident in my mind," Hetterle said. "It wasn't that he had a problem setting fires. This was just a dumb teenager mistake."

Hetterle treats each child differently, relying upon an initial assessment and their needs.

There is no set duration of time for Hetterle to work with a child. But he usually has three visits with them. Hetterle meets the child in a neutral spot like a public library. He gives the children assignments like writing an apology to the fire department for its response to something the child was responsible for.

Some of the children watch videos as part of their counseling. One is called "Sean's Story," about a juvenile accused of burning his high school down.

"He got charged for it and basically lost his whole childhood because he was incarcerated," Hetterle said. "So he has since turned stuff around and uses his past as a story that this isn't cool. Don't do this type of stuff."

Hetterle said he measures success in the intervention program by seeing a child progress through their assignments. For those not showing progress, Hetterle said he reminds them why they are in the program in the first place.


Twitter: @JeffDBarron

Adam Hetterle, fire inspector and Youth Firestarter Intervention Program specialist, stands inside Engine House 3 of the city fire department recently.
Adam Hetterle, fire inspector and Youth Firestarter Intervention Program specialist, stands inside Engine House 3 of the city fire department recently.

This article originally appeared on Lancaster Eagle-Gazette: Fire inspector works with children who set fires in prevention program