By Kathryn Menue


BELVIDERE – At the end of May, three firefighters joined the fight against juvenile fire setters.

Lt. Shawn Schadle and firefighters and investigators Mark Beck and Matt Loudenbeck became state certified Juvenile Fire Setter Interventionists (JFSI) after completing a two day-16 hour course in Rockford.

The three firefighters became certified by the Office of the State Fire Marshall after years of the program being on hiatus due to the course changing jurisdiction from the Illinois Fire Safety Alliance to the Office of the State Fire Marshall.

Prior to the firefighters’ certification, Chief Al Hyser was the only certified JFSI currently in the Belvidere Fire Department.

“The course teaches us how to handle different situations like when kids set fires,” Chief Hyser said.

Chief Hyser said that the program has been around for over 20 years and certification classes recently started up again because there is a real need to educate children on the dangers of setting fires.

“It’s here,” Chief Hyser said. “It’s something that will never really go away.”

The need for the program is apparent through the research the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) conducted on youth fire setting.

The NFPA found that in Illinois, between 2007 and 2011, 49,300 child-set fires were reported. Out of those fires, there were 80 civilian deaths, 880 civilian injuries, and $235 million in direct damage.

The NFPA also found that out of those fires, 11,100 of the fires were set in homes with 39 percent of them starting in the bedroom.

Of the 49,300 child-set fires, 43 percent of the fires were set by children under 6-years-old.

“This is our target population,” Lt. Schadle said. “Those are the ones we can really make a difference with.”

Therefore, fire departments around the country are being certified as JFSI to not only speak with children after a child-set fire incident, but to also prevent child-set fires from occurring in the first place.

“The goal of the program is to save lives and properties,” Lt. Schadle said. “The way we accomplish that is mainly through education and other professionals if needed.”

According to the NFPA, education and early intervention are key to preventing child-set fires, since most often, children set fires due to curiosity. Curiosity accounts for 60 to 70 percent of child-set fires due to children having easy access to lighters and matches and due to a lack of education on the dangers of fires.

“The goal is to help parents with children who could be curious about fire,” Chief Hyser said.

The JFSI certified firefighters at the Belvidere Fire Department are available to the community to teach kids not to play with fire.

Anyone can set up an appointment with the Belvidere Fire Department to bring their kid(s) down to the fire station to learn about fire safety. The service is free, fully confidential, and occurs in a safe and supportive environment where kids won’t have to worry that they are in trouble.

“We want parents and schools to know the services we provide,” Lt. Schadle said. “If your child displays any tendencies toward playing with fire, set up an appointment with us. There are services available.”

The firefighters will sit down with the children and discuss the “hazards of what a fire can cause,” Beck said. They explain to children that “fire is for adults” and that it can be a wonderful asset for cooking and other essentials, but that it is also dangerous.

The firefighters will also speak with children about how they would feel if they lost all of their things because of a fire they set. This helps children see the “consequences of their actions,” Lt. Schadle said.

This technique builds off of a proven method former firefighter and JFSI Ted Vickers would use with children.

Vickers would ask children, “Do you want people to get hurt from one of the fires you set?”

This helped children see the ramifications of their actions.

“I think that really hit home with them,” Chief Hyser said.

Vickers and Jeff Schulte were the foundational JFSI in the Belvidere Fire Department.

“Ted was real instrumental in getting the program going,” Chief Hyser said. According to Chief Hyser, Vickers would take his own money and buy gifts for the children to help connect with them and educate them on the dangers of setting fires.

Beck said the fire department can also teach children about fire safety through video testimonials from children who have set fires and faced the consequences and from burn victims’ testimonials.

These methods help curb children’s curiosity with setting fires.

Chief Hyser said that in his 20 years of service, he has spoken with 10 children about the dangers of playing with fire. Out of the 10 Chief Hyser worked with, only one child needed additional psychological assistance from a professional.

Chief Hyser said that he’s even run into children years after talking with them, and they’ve turned out just fine.

The key to prevention is early intervention. Beck said the best method of prevention is through a “coalition” or united front where parents, schools, and the fire department all work together in educating children on the dangers of fire.

This would include limiting access to lighters and matches, discussing the dangers and consequences with kids, and being observant. Look for signs like burn marks, or burnt toys or even burnt pieces of paper under their bed, Chief Hyser said.

Always know that the fire department is available to help in this process. The Belvidere Fire Department is located at 123 S. State St. in Belvidere. To contact the fire department, call (815) 544-2242.

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