Pyromania in more extreme circumstances can be an impulse control disorder to deliberately start fires to relieve tension or for gratification or relief. The term pyromania comes from the Greek word πῦρ ('pyr', fire). Pyromania and pyromaniacs are distinct from arson and arsonists, whose motivations stem from psychosis, the pursuit of personal, monetary or political gain, or the intent to inflict harm for advantage or revenge. Pyromaniacs start fires to induce euphoria, and often fixate on institutions of fire control like fire stations and firefighters. Pyromania is a type of impulse control disorder.
Pyromania is a rare disorder with an incidence of less than one percent in most studies; also, pyromaniacs are a very small proportion of psychiatric hospital admissions (The Arsonist's Mind 2006). Pyromania can occur in children as young as age three, though such cases are rare. Only a small percentage[quantify] of children and adolescents arrested for arson are child pyromaniacs. Ninety percent of those diagnosed with pyromania are male (Gale 1998). Based on a survey of 9,282 Americans using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition, impulse-control problems such as gambling, pyromania and compulsive shopping collectively affect 9% of the population (Alspach 2005). A 1979 study by the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration found that only 14% of fires were started by pyromaniacs and others with mental illness (Smith 1999).
Common synonyms for pyromaniacs in colloquial English include firebug and firestarter.
Most studied cases of pyromania occur in children and adolescents and 90% of all pyromania cases are male (Gale 1998). There is a range of causes, but an understanding of the different motives and actions of fire setters can provide a platform for prevention. Common causes of pyromania can be broken down into two main groups: individual and environmental.
Individual factors that can lead to pyromania mainly deal with personal issues in someone's life. This category includes adolescents who have committed crimes in the past. For example, 19% of adolescents suffering from pyromania have been charged with vandalism and 18% are nonviolent sexual offenders. Other causes may include the seeking of attention from authorities or parents and resolving social issues such as bullying or lack of friends (Frey 2001). Another cause may be that the patient is subconsciously seeking revenge for something that has occurred in the past (Oliver).
Environmental factors that may lead to pyromania include an event that the patient has experienced in the environment they live in. Environmental factors include neglect from parents and physical orsexual abuse in earlier life. Other causes include early experiences of watching adults or adolescents using fire inappropriately and lighting fires as a stress reliever (Frey 2001).
There are specific symptoms that separate pyromaniacs from those who start fires for criminal purposes or due to emotional motivations not specifically related to fire. Someone suffering from this disorder deliberately and purposely sets fires on more than one occasion, and before the act of lighting the fire the person usually experiences tension and an emotional buildup. When around fires, a person suffering from pyromania gains intense interest or fascination and may also experience pleasure, gratification or relief (Frey 2001). Another symptom often linked with pyromania is the buildup ofstress. When studying the lifestyle of someone with pyromania, a buildup of stress and emotion is often evident and this is seen in teens' attitudes towards friends and family (Gale 1998).
Treatment and prognosis
The appropriate treatment for pyromania varies with the age of the patient and the seriousness of the condition. For children and adolescents treatment usually is cognitive behavioural therapy sessions in which the patient’s situation is diagnosed to find out what may have caused this impulsive behaviour. Once the situation is diagnosed then repeated therapy sessions usually help continue to a recovery (Frey 2001).
Pyromania is generally harder to treat in adults, often due to lack of cooperation by the patient. Treatment usually consists of medication to prevent stress or emotional outbursts (Oliver) in addition to long-term psychotherapy (Frey 2001).
The prognosis for recovery in adolescents and children who suffer from pyromania depends on the environmental or individual factors involved, but is generally positive. In adults, however, the recovery rate is generally poor and if an adult does recover it usually takes a longer period of time (Frey 2001).
Pyromania is best prevented by parents taking the time to educate their children on fire safety and the dangers of fires. Parents should also keep all fire lighting devices out of reach of children and any teenagers to reduce the risk of their starting any fires (Australian Brushfire Arson Bulletin 2005).
The Study of Serial Arsonists
The Study of Serial Arsonists
The information contained in this report is the result of on-going research conducted by the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) at the Federal Bureau of Investigation Academy in Quantico, Virginia. The NCAVC is a law-enforcement-oriented resource center that consolidates research, training, investigative, and operational support functions to provide assistance to law enforcement agencies confronted with unusual, high-risk, vicious, or repetitive crimes. In 1986, a subunit was established within the Center to study arson and bombings. Representatives from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms joined the Center staff to serve in the Arson and Bombing Investigative Services Subunit (ABIS). This arrangement is based upon a concurrent investigative responsibility with the FBI in these areas. ABIS has the primary responsibility to provide assistance in arson, bombing, terrorism, and related violent crimes submitted to the NCAVC by federal, state, local, and foreign law enforcement agencies. The staff of the Center is joined by faculty from major universities, members of the mental health and medical professions, and other law enforcement representatives (NCAVC, 1992).
The subunit has conducted a series of studies on serial arsonists (See Icove and Estepp, 1987; Icove and Gilman, 1989; Icove and Horbert, 1990; Sapp, Gary, Huff and James, 1993, 1994; Sapp, Huff, Gary, Icove, and Horbert, 1994; Huff, 1993, 1994; and Sapp and Huff, 1994. See also Douglas, Burgess, Burgess and Ressler, 1992). These studies form the basis for the conclusions and recommendations contained in this report.
Statement of Problem
This study arose from a concern about the extent of serial arson in the United States. Serial arson is an offense committed by firesetters who set three or more fires with a significant cooling off period between the fires (Douglas, et al, 1992). Arson is a violent crime, often taking the lives of innocent people, while also causing tremendous financial losses in property. According to the Uniform Crime Reports produced by the FBI (1992), arsons in 1991 exceeded one billion dollars in property loss. Arson is the second leading cause of deaths in residential fires (Federal Emergency Management Agency, 1988). Despite the huge losses in property and the deaths caused by arson, relatively little research has been conducted on arsonists. Most of the available research is in the form of clinical studies of very small numbers of arsonists. (See Geller, 1992 for an extensive review of the literature on arson studies in forensic psychiatry). This study is intended to fill some of the gaps in knowledge about arsonists, particularly the serial arsonists.
This project was planned and implemented with several research goals designed to meet specific needs of arson investigators and prosecutors. The goals included:
- Identify common characteristics of arsons committed by serial arsonists.
- Identify common motives and related characteristics of arsonists who repeatedly set fires.
- Determine if serial arsonists share common characteristics with other arsonists.
- Determine the extent to which serial arsons may be classified in accordance with the Crime Classification Manual for serious crimes developed at the NCAVC. (See Douglas, et al, 1992).
- Identify any related characteristics that would be of assistance to investigators of serial arsons.
These goals are based on the belief that any understanding of the typology of arsonists, particularly typological classification based on motivations, may enhance investigative efforts and provide a focus for intervention efforts. Examination and reporting the results may facilitate dialog between the various disciplines and investigative units involved in arson study and investigation. It is also intended that the information supplied will assist arson investigators in developing skills in reading the characteristics of crime scene evidence and applying that evidence to behavior and patterns of thinking on the part of the arsonist.
Definition of Terms
The following terms are used throughout the report and are defined here to facilitate understanding of the findings and conclusions of the research.
Arson - Arson is the willful and malicious burning of property (Douglas, et al, 1992). The criminal act of arson is divided into three elements (DeHaan, 1991):
- There has been a burning of property. This must be shown to the court to be actual destruction, at least in part, not just scorching or sooting (although some states include any physical or visible impairment of any surface).
- The burning is incendiary in origin. Proof of the existence of an effective incendiary device, no matter how simple it may be, is adequate. Proof must be accomplished by showing specifically how all possible natural or accidental cases have been considered and ruled out.
- The burning is shown to be started with malice, that is, with the specific intent of destroying property (p.324).
Arsonist - A person apprehended, charged and convicted of one or more arsons (Douglas, et al, 1992).
Accelerant - Accelerants are any type of material or substance added to the targeted materials to enhance the combustion of those materials and to accelerate the burning (Douglas, et al, 1992).
Classification of Arson by Style and Type
A variety of descriptive terms are added to the term arson in an attempt to communicate varieties and variations in arson behavior. Some commonly used terms are single, double, triple arsons, as well as mass, spree and serial arson. As reflected in Chart 1 below, the style of the arson involves the number of fires set, the number of separate events occurring, the number of sites or locations involved, and whether or not there was a cooling off period between the fires.
This classification by style and type is compatible with the classification used in the Crime Classification Manual. The terms single, double and triple arsons are shown to be the number of fires set at one site at one time in a single event. The other three terms are somewhat more complex and are defined as follows:
Mass Arson - Mass arson involves an offender who sets three or more fires at the same site or location during a limited period of time (Douglas, et al, 1992).Spree Arson - Spree arson involves an arsonist who sets three or more fires at separate locations with no emotional cooling-off period between the fires (Douglas, et al, 1992).Serial Arson - Serial arson involves an offender who sets three or more fires with a cooling-off period between the fires (Douglas, et al, 1992).
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