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Oklahoma City program seeks to divert would-be arsonists

Kids caught setting fires can go one of two routes, through the justice system or through Oklahoma City's Youth Firesetter Intervention Program.

Children ages 5 to 15 are eligible for the program, which involve sessions with trained firefighters.

Investigators who determine a child started a fire can make referrals to the program. Parents who have caught a child playing with fire also can voluntarily take their kids in for help.

"The alternative is that they could have sent you to kid jail," Oklahoma City fire Capt. Chad Adams said.

"They take charges to the DA, the DA signs them, gives them back to us, and we say, 'You can go through our program, or we can file this paperwork,'" Adams said.

Parents usually choose the diversion program, which is provided free of charge. But only once.

"That's something else we explain to the kids. 'You play Monopoly? You know that Get Out of Jail Free card you get? You just used yours,'" Adams said.

The district attorney declines to file charges when the diversion program is chosen, but retains the records for seven years. If more fire behavior occurs, the juveniles are charged. There are no second chances with the program.

"That way we have some teeth," Adams said.

Curiosity and thrill-seeking are the most common reasons for setting fires. Mental and emotional issues or purely criminal intent are rare, he said.

"We try to show them that the little actions that they take and the little decisions that they make can have huge consequences, and that you have to make good little decisions so that you don't put yourself in a position to explain why three people died and a neighborhood burned down," Adams said.

After the program concludes, the children are given a certificate saying they've completed the program.

Sessions are usually held at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Interested parents can call the Oklahoma City Fire Department at 297-3318.

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