Three Forest Park firefighters recently completed youth fire intervention training, and are now available all hours of the day to counsel troubled or curious kids about the risks of playing with fire.
Lead fire investigator Mark Maylath and investigators Phil Damato and Miguel Casanova went through the 16-hour training through the Illinois State Fire Marshal, completing the program Nov. 15. They're the first local firefighters to receive the training in at least 10 years.
"Obviously the awareness is what we need to make it known in our community," Maylath said. "If a kid sets a fire and [a parent] just lets it go unnoticed thinking, 'It was just a kid being a kid,' down the road it can lead to something worse."
Investigators intervene about 72-hours after a fire started by a child has been reported by police, paramedics or another firefighter.
Officials will try and determine the child's reason for starting the fire, and then link them with an outside program to provide support. Support services could include getting the kid involved in a park district program for free or at a reduced price, offering them time with the fire department's social worker or pairing them with a Big Brother or Big Sister, said Fire Chief Bob McDermott.
The fire department is still working to make partnerships with service organizations. But McDermott encouraged anyone who knows a child who has an unhealthy relationship with fire — a police officer, school teacher, daycare employee — to call the fire department or email him for help.
"I think there's a curiosity that kids have with fire. It's kind of a normal thing," McDermott said. "We want to reach out to parents who might be experiencing the abnormal, like it's not one fire, it's two fires or three."
Two fire investigators will sit down with child — aged 20 or under — and try to find common ground. Do they like the same TV shows? From there, they try and identify the child's intent for starting the fire. Did they know it would hurt someone? Based on their conversation, Forest Park officials then characterize the child as a minor risk, troubled, delinquent or criminal.
"If it meets the point where these are delinquent and troubled people, a bad group that want to start these fires, we don't believe that our education program is going to change their behavior," Maylath said.
But for children who are characterized as a minor risk or troubled, investigators try educating them on the risks of starting a fire. Or they refer them to an outside agency for help.
"We want to be a child advocate," Maylath said. "If this happens to be a troubled child, instead of putting them in the system, we try and address what the underlying issues are."
Maylath said he remembers when a child about 10 years old lit a bed on fire in the spring, at a house around the 900 block of Ferdinand Avenue. The family lived in a two-story house with about three bedrooms, he said. Maylath said he remembers it was night time, the mom was away at work and a relative was supposed to supervise the three children.
But the relative was sitting downstairs while the kids played on the top floor, he said. Many domestic incidents had been reported previously at the property, and the father had recently left the home, Maylath said.
The 10-year-old child decided to take a lighter to his mom's blankets and mattress, because "he was mad about everything that happened with the mom and dad," Maylath said, adding that there also had been a recent death in the family.
Someone called 911 about the fire, while a sibling threw water on the flames, Maylath said. There was very minor damage to the home, and the kids were taken into protective custody, Maylath said. But after that, Maylath said he never heard from the 10-year-old again.
"I unfortunately lost contact with that child, not knowing how to remedy the situation," Maylath said. "The mom wasn't around at the time to try and counsel or anything. At least now when we leave the scene we can reach out, and come back out, and get in touch with them, instead of just handing out a business card."