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Chapter 6
Implications for Arson Investigators

This chapter provides specific items of information that may be of immediate value to fire investigators. The data is organized and presented according to the arson classification design in the Crime Classification Manual. This information should be used in conjunction with the Crime Classification Manual to assist investigators in determining motivations, identifying offender characteristics and modus operandi. The information presented is bases on the typical, the usual, the expected and it is understood that many cases of arson are unusual, unexpected and atypical. Thus not all of the information will, nor should it be expected to, be present in every case. The intent is to provide the fire investigator with as many tools and as much information as possible.

260. Serial Arsonists

  • Most serial arsonists are young, white (82 percent) males (94 percent).
  • Most serial arsonists have prior felony arrests and two-thirds have multiple prior felony arrests.
  • Two in three serial arsonists have a misdemeanor arrest record with most having multiple misdemeanor arrests.
  • Most serial arsonists have spent time in various types of institutions.
  • There are considerably more juvenile offenders but many decrease or end firesetting activities around age 19.
  • The serial arsonists who continue their criminal firesetting after age 19 become more frequent offenders, setting more fires than their younger counterparts.
  • Most serial arsonists walked to the scene of the fires they set, with 70 percent of the fires set within a radius of two miles or less from the residence of the serial arsonist.
  • Almost all of the fires were set in areas familiar to the serial arsonist.
  • Serial arsonists use unsophisticated methods in setting fires. They use available materials, paper, and gasoline as the most common accelerants and matches or cigarette lighters for ignition of the fires.
  • Over one-half leave items at the scene, usually a match.
  • Over 50 percent of serial arsonists returned to the scene.
  • Of those that returned to the scene, 97 percent did so within 24 hours of the arson.
  • The majority of serial arsonists set only one fire in a location. However, some return to set new fires in the same place many times.
  • The frequency of firesetting by serial arsonists usually does not significantly change over time.
  • The severity of the fires set by serial arsonists tends to increase over time.

200. Vandalism-Motivated Arson:

  • Vandalism-motivated arson is defined as malicious or mischievous firesetting that results in damage to property.
  • One of the most common targets is schools or school property and educational facilities.
  • Vandals also frequently target abandoned structures and flammable vegetation.
  • The vandalism-motivated serial arsonist has average or below average intelligence as measured by IQ tests.
  • The vandalism-motivated serial arsonist is likely to have a long history of institutionalization.
  • The vandalism-motivated serial arsonist usually has a history of multiple contacts with authorities.
  • The vandalism motivated arsonist sets fires only in areas with which he is well acquainted.
  • Trash bins, dumpsters and trash cans are his primary targets but he will set fires in unoccupied or vacant buildings, usually setting the fire outside the building unless there is open entry to the structure.
  • Businesses will rarely be the target of a vandalism-motivated fire.
  • Typically the fires will be set within one-half to one mile from home or work with the arsonists walking to the scenes of the arsons. An automobile may be used, if available, to travel to the scene of the offenses further from home or work.
  • The typical vandalism-motivated arsonist will use available materials to set fires with book matches and cigarette lighters as the ignition device for the fires.
  • Usually the vandalism-motivated arsonist will leave the scene and not return to the scene. His interest is in setting the fire, not watching it or the fire-fighting activities generated by the fire.
  • Over time, the frequency of offenses will remain relatively stable.
  • The severity of the fires set by the vandalism-motivated serial arsonist is very likely to increase.

210: Excitement-Motivated Arson:

  • Offenders motivated by excitement include seekers of thrills, attention, and recognition.
  • The typical excitement motivated serial arsonist is a white male who is single.
  • The typical excitement motivated serial arsonist has a felony arrest record and may have multiple felony arrests.
  • The typical excitement-motivated serial arsonist has an extensive record of placements in foster homes, juvenile and adult correctional facilities.
  • The excitement-motivated serial arsonist set his first fire at age 12 and sets a total 40 fires on average.
  • The fires set by the excitement-motivated serial arsonist are typically within 1-2 miles of his home or workplace. All are set in areas with which he is familiar.
  • Generally, he will walk to the scene of the arsons
  • The stereotypical arsonist who sets fires for sexual gratification is quite rare.
  • Potential targets of the excitement-motivated arsonist range from nuisance fires to occupied apartment houses at nighttime.
  • The excitement-motivated serial arsonist generally uses available materials as an accelerant and ignites the fire with matches or a cigarette lighter.
  • The excitement-motivated serial arsonist does not usually remove anything from the scene but he is likely to leave matches at the scene.
  • After setting the fire, the excitement-motivated arsonist either remains at the scene or goes to another location to observe the fire and fire suppression efforts.
  • He will return to the scene within 24 hours of the fire.
  • Alcohol is typically not involved in the excitement motivated fires.
  • The frequency of fires may increase slightly over time but the severity is almost certain to increase.


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