Arsonist Profile

According to the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) of the US Fire Administration(USFA) federal Emergency Management Agency, the United States had one of the highest per capita fire death rates among industrialized nations. In 1997, the US fire death rate was 15.2 deaths per million. this was reflected in approximately 4,050 deaths and more than 23,000 injuries for that year alone. Nearly 2 million fires occurred in 1997 with a total estimated dollar loss of 8.5 billion.

In addition to structure fires each year hundreds of thousands of vehicle and outside fires occur.

In 1997, vehicle fires accounted for nearly 400,000 incidents resulting in approximately 450 civilian deaths and 1,700 civilian injuries. Outside fires were estimated at more than 700,000 occurrences, accounting for 40% of the total number or reported fires.

Arson fires (defined as incendiary/suspicious in NFIRS) comprised almost 16% of all reported fires in 1997 and accounted for more than 554 million or 15 % of all the total estimated dollar loss.

Fire Setter Profiles

Curious Fire setter:

Typically a younger child with low impulse control.

Usually a hands on learner who is active and explores the environment.

May experience fear, sadness or loss as a result of setting the fire.


Typically uses matches or lighters and ignites items found in the home.

unsophisticated fires set in hidden locations.

May try to extinguish the fire or may ignore it.
Family or social Dynamics:

Come from various types of homes, but usually have a lack of supervision.

Have easy access to sources of ignition and a general lack of safety awareness.

Caregivers may deny their child's involvement and often respond with fear and embarrassment to a fire setting incident. they may have tried to stop the child's behavior.

Troubled Fire setters:

Usually has a history of fire setting and has experienced a recent crisis or trauma.

They have poor coping skills, lack problem solving skills and are unable to express or identify with feelings.

They show a lack of appropriate remorse after setting a fire.

Will often deny or lie about the cause of the fire.

Fire setting behavior:

typically uses matches or lighters and ignites relatively unsophisticated fires.

fires are often motivated by frustration and may be a cry for help and or symbolic of a crisis.

Family or Social Dynamics

Comes from various types of households, but they usually are raised in a chaotic environment.

It is possible that there have been instances of neglect or abuse.

have easy access to sources of ignition and a general lack of safety awareness.

Delinquent Fire Setter

Typically an adolescent with poor interpersonal skills who lacks good judgment and is impulsive and irresponsible.
,br> Often a risk take who opposes authority with a history of academic and or behavioral problems.

Often deny or lie about the origin of the fire.

Are embarrassed and afraid of the consequences when caught.

Fire setting Behavior:

Can set school fires-but often sets outdoor fires.

Fires are often set with peers and are not sophisticated in nature.

Often uses fireworks, smoke bombs and sets off false alarms.

Has a history of fire setting and will use common accelerants to set the fire.

Family or Social Dynamics:

Individual is peer dominated

Often comes from a dysfunctional family and has a lack of adequate supervision.

They are fearful of legal or financial consequences and are receptive to assistance.

Caregivers have made numerous attempts to obtain help and are embarrassed and or angry about the setting of fires.

Strategic Fire setters

Typically a teenager with a history of delinquent behavior who may have been involved with the juvenile justice system

Regard any legal consequences of their actions as a joke and have a failure to experience any guilt about what they have done.

Have low self-esteem and may brag to peers about the fires.

There is a probable gang affiliation and there is usually a history of substance use or abuse.

Fire Setting behavior:

Fires typically have multiple points of origin and are often set in conjunction with other crimes

Fires are often set with peers and they usually use accelerants.

Fires are often will planned and set to cause harm or destruction or as revenge fires.

Family or Social dynamics:

they are usually alienated from caretakers and society with a history of school problems as well as a history of substance use or abuse.

Individual is peer dominated with little or no family involvement.

Care takers will defer responsibility for the person's actions.

Pathological Fire setter:

Very few of these

Possibly have a high IQ but can have a history of sever emotional problems.

Have had academic and behavioral problems and often have difficulty establishing relationships

Have a history of medical and or neurological problems

Are likely to have been a victim of physical or sexual abuse.

Are a loner who has a life long fascination with fire.

Fire Setting Behaviors:

has a long history of fire setting with multiple indicants.

Fires are sophisticated cleverly set and are often ritualistic with a distinct pattern.

They are usually very destructive.

They are secretly proud of the fires they set.

Family or social Dynamics:

Come from various types of households, but they usually are raised in a chaotic environment.

It's possible that there have been instances of neglect or abuse.

Have easy access to sources of ignition and a general lack of safety awareness.

Arson is the willful and malicious burning of property. The criminal act of arson is divided into three elements.

1) There is a burning of property. This must be shown to the court to be actual destruction at least in part not just scorching or sooting.

2) The fire is incendiary in origin. Proof must be established by evidence either through specific forensic findings or by expert testimony that all possible natural or accidental causes have been considered and eliminated.

3) The fire is proved to be started with malice.

Arson: General Characteristics

Targeted Property:
The essential factor that often determines the motive.

Random, opportunistic Vs. Specific.

Crime Scene Indicators:
Elaborate incendiary devices(electronic timing mechanisms, iniators etc)

Less physical evidence if forced entry, more skillful (footprints, finger prints etc)

Methodical approach (trailers, multiple sets, excessive accelerant use etc)

Materials on hand

Matches, cigarettes, more common accelerants (lighter fluid, gasoline.)

more physical evidence left (handwriting, footprints, finger prints etc)

Forensic Findings

Incendiary devices: components (initiators, timing devices, candles, electronic timers, tape, wires etc)

Accelerants: gasoline, lighter fluid, mixtures (gasoline/kerosene)

More sophisticated accelerants: diesel/kerosene water soluble (alcohol)

Molotov cocktails: glass fragments for fingerprints, cloth for fiber, matches.

Vandalism-Motivated Arson

Vandalism motivated arson is due to malicious and mischievous motivation that results in destruction or damage.

The types of vandalism-motivated arson in this category are willful and malicious mischief, peer group pressure and other.

If multiple offenders are involved, one personality tends to be the leader or instigator of the group.

The typical crime scene reflects the spontaneous nature of the offense and is representative or a disorganized crime.

The offenders tend to use materials present at the site and leave physical evidence at the scene. Occasionally, flammable liquids are used.

The offenders may gain entrance to a secured structure though windows. Evidence will show mechanical breaking of the glass as opposed to heat damage

Matchbooks, cigarettes and spray pain cans are often present. Other signs suggesting vandalism may be present.

The typical offender is a juvenile male who has 7-9 years of formal education. He tends to have a record of poor school performance and does not work. He is single and lives with either one or both parents. Alcohol and drugs generally are not associated with the fire setting.

The majority of these offenders live less t han one mile from the crime scene. Most offenders flee immediately from the scene and do not return. If they do return, they view the fire from a safe distance.

Excitement Motivated Arson

The excitement motivated arsonist is prompted to set fires because he craves excitement that is satisfied by fire setting.

This offender rarely intends the fire to harm people.

The type of arsonist included in this category are thrill seekers, attention seekers, sexual prevision and other.

Offenders in the 18-30 age group are more prone to use accelerants. Matches and cigarettes are frequently used to ignite vegetation fires.

A small percentage of excitement fires are motivated by sexual perversion. At these crime scenes, the investigator may find ejaculate, fecal deposits, and or pornographic materials. In most cases, this fire setter uses available material and starts small fires.

The typical excitement arsonist is a juvenile or young adult male with 10 or more years of formal education. This offender is generally unemployed single and living with one or both parents. His family tends to be from middle-lower or middle class bracket. In general this offender is sexually inadequate, particularly in heterosexual relationships, serial offenders are common to this category of fire setters.

A history of police contact for nuisance offenses is prevalent with excitement-motivated offenders. The older the offender, the longer t he record.

The distance that the offender lives from the crime scene can be frequently determined by an analysis of th e targets he or she burned. Through target and cluster analysis, the investigator can determine if the offender is mobile.

Some excitement-motivated arsonists do not leave once the fire has started. They prefer to mingle with the crowds who have gathered to watch the fire.

The offenders who do leave the scene usually return later and observe the damage and activity of their handiwork.

Revenge-Motivated Arson

A revenge motivated fire is set in retaliation for some injustice real or imagined perceived by the offender.
,br> This offense may be a well-planned one time event compared with the other categories of arson or the offender may be a serial arsonist taking revenge against society with little or no pre-planning.

Many arson motivations have an element of revenge in addition to the main motive. The types of revenge motivated arson included in this category are personal retaliation, social retaliation, institutional retaliation( against the government), group retaliation, intimidation and other.

The victim of a revenge fire generally has a history of interpersonal or professional conflict with the offender.

Revenge motivated arson also tends to be an intra racial offense.

Female subjects usually target something of significance to the victim such as a vehicle or personal effects. The exlover revenge arsonist frequently burns clothing bedding and or other personal effects.

\ Residential property and vehicles are the prime targets. Arsonists seek revenge against society may exhibit displaced aggression by choosing targets at random. Other offenders retaliate against institutions such as churches, government facilities and universities or corporations.

The revenge fire setter is predominantly an adult male with 10 or more years of formal education. If employed this offender is usually a blue collar worker in the lower socioeconomic status. A revenge arsonist typically resides in some type of rental property. Even though this offender tends not be a loner and has close relationships the relationships generally are not stable or long term. An exception is the revenge motivated serial arsonist who is often a loner.

The revenge arsonist most often will have some type of prior law enforcement contact for crimes such as burglary, theft or vandalism. The use of alcohol with this offense is common. The offender also may use drugs during the crime but alcohol use is more prevalent. The offender is rarely accompanied to the crime scene and seldom returns once the fire is set. In fact he wants as much distance between himself and the fire as possible and concentrates on establishing an alibi. The offender usually lives within the affected community.

Mobility is a factor with him so he often uses a vehicle to get to and from the crime scene. This is in contrast to the revenge-motivated serial arsonist who frequently walks to the scene. After the fire, the offender may increase alcohol consumption. He expresses a short lives sense of relief and satisfaction and an uncaring attitude toward the victim.

Crime Concealment Motivated Arson

Arson is a secondary or collateral criminal activity perpetrated for the purpose of covering up a primary criminal activity of some nature. The types of crime concealment motivated arson included in this category: murder concealment.

The fire is an attempt to obliterate the fact that a homicide has been committed, destroy forensic evidence and or conceal the victim's identity.

Burglary concealment with an unsophisticated or less experienced burglar. The crime scene often reflects the use of available materials to start the fire and the presence of multiple offenders.

Auto theft concealment in the case of auto theft concealment, the offender will use and or strip and burn the vehicle to eliminate prints. This crime frequently involved multiple offenders.

Destruction of records, when arson is used to destroy records, the fire is set in the area where they are contained. In arson-for-profit cases records are commonly one of several points of fire origin.

Alcohol and recreational drugs use is common to the crime concealment motivated arsonist. The offender can be expected to have a history of police or fire department contacts or arrests.

The offender is most likely a young adult who lives within the surrounding community and is highly mobile especially someone involved in auto theft. The offender who uses arson to conceal burglary or auto theft is routinely accompanied to the scene by co-conspirators. Almost all offenders in this category leave the crime scene immediately and do not return.

Post offense behavior may include an increase in alcohol and or drug consumption.

Murder concealment is usually a one time event and does not involve serial arson.

The investigator inquiring into an arson set to destroy records should discover who would benefit from their concealment.

Profit Motivated Arson

Arson for profit is a fire set for the purpose of achieving material gain, either directly or indirectly. It is a commercial crime and exhibits the least passion of any of the motivations that generate the crime of arson. The types of profit motivated arson found in this category are fraud including fraud to collect insurance, fraud to conceal loss or liquidate inventory, employment, parcel clearance competition and other.

This type of arson usually involved a well-planned and methodical approach. The crime scene demonstrates a more organized style by containing less physical evidence that would identify the offender and more sophisticated incendiary devices when a large business is burned, multiple offenders may be involved.

A lack of forced entry is not infrequent in arson-for-profit cases. Use of incendiary devices is more prevalent than the use of available materials such as devices are often elaborate. The remnants of theses devices usually can be found at the crime scene.

The point of origin of the fire can also be a determining factor. As the intent of the offender is usually to totally destroy the target of arson, the selected point of origin is that which is most efficient to establish the desired loss.

A common forensic finding with arson for profit is the use of more sophisticated accelerants or mixtures.

Because the use of incendiary devices is common with arson for profit, components of these devices are additionally forensic findings that may assist the investigator.

The typical primary offender in this category is an adult male with 10 or more years of formal education; this may vary, however. A secondary offender is the torch for hire who most frequently is a male 25-40 years of age and usually unemployed. The torch operates as an agent for the primary offender, who contracts the torch's services and is the dominant personality in the total offense.

The typical primary offender for commercial fires may have no police record. The torch for hire will likely have a prior arrest record for offense such as burglary, assault public intoxication and possibly even a previous arson arrest.

The offender generally lives more than one mile from the crime scene. Many arsonists for profit are accompanied to the crime scene and most leave the scene and do not return.

The offender's pre-offense conversations with other may offer indications of premeditation. A recent change of ownership and or increase in insurance policy should raise one's suspicion.

The investigator should look for any of the following indicators financial difficulties if arson for profit is suspected:

Decreasing revenue
increasing production costs
New technology making current process/equipment inadequate
costly lease or rental agreements
unprofitable contracts, loss or key customer
Failure to record depreciation
personal expresses paid with corporate funds
bounced checks
Hypothetical assets, liens on assets over insured assets
inventory levels, removal prior to fire
overstocking caused by over production
exaggeration of loss
litigation against business or owners
bankruptcy proceedings
two sets of books maintained
prior years losses
prior insurance claims
duplicate sales invoices
alleged renovations
property has frequently change of ownership preceding fire
use of photocopies instead of original source of documents

Bounced checks
Costly lease or overdue bills
inability to pay current bills
credit limits imposed by lenders
payment of bi lls by cashier's check or money order
alleged renovations
sales between related parties
often these offenders have negative cash flow by they maintain appearances of continues financial health

Extremist Motivated Arson

Is committed to further a social political or religious cause. The types in this category are terrorism, discrimination riots/civil disturbance and other.

The crime scene reflects an organized and focused attack by the offender(s). Multiple offenders are common to this arson.

These offenders frequently employ incendiary devices such as Molotov cocktails which offer both offender and forensic information. Offenders may leave some from of message at the crime scene, symbolic messages often indicate younger offenders, communiqués are sometimes delivered orally or in writing to the media claiming responsibility or attempting to justify the violent act.

When confronting with obvious overkill in setting the fire investigators should be aware of the possibility of extreme concentrations of flammable or combustible materials used to set the fires. Unexploded incendiary devices may be found at the scene.

Extremist arsonists often are more sophisticated offenders and may use incendiary devices

Serial Arson

Arsonists who set fires repeatedly are referred to as serial fire setters.

The NCAVC classifies compulsive fire setting as mass, spree or serial

The serial arsonist is involved in three or more separate fire setting episodes with a characteristic emotional cooling off period between fires. This period may last days weeks or even years.

Serial arson is the most serious type of arson do to apparent random selection of victims and unpredictable gaps between incidents. Furthermore a serial arson is not a separate or distinct motive for fire setting it is a pattern of fire setting frequently encountered in revenge, excitement or extremist motivated arson

Serial arsonists often create a climate of fear in entire communities community leaders tend to compound the problem by pressuring law enforcement agencies to identify and quickly apprehend the fire setter often the arsonist evades apprehension for months while investigators become increasing frustrated by the lack of experience in handling these baffling cases

This type of arson usually involves a disorganized crime scene physical evidence is often present. The offender frequently uses available materials found at the scene and carries the source of ignition with them usually a long offender is involved.

The typical offender in this category is usually male. His age is generally younger than the single event arsonist. He tends to be a loner, but a secondary party may have knowledge of his activities. He will tend to be minimally educated and an underachiever. He generally has poor interpersonal relationships and is socially inadequate. Often he is unemployed and if he has an employment history it is erratic and involves little or no skill.

Serial arsonists often have a history of substance abuse and a history of police contact/arrests for minor nuisance offenses. The offender walks to the scene of the fire and generally lives within one mile of the crime scene He is very likely familiar with the crime scene and could justify his presence in the area.

It is important to analyze the cluster centers of fire activity. The tighter the cluster the closer to the area of significance to the offender.

A subtype of the serial arsonist is the extremist serial arsonist. Research suggests that this offender is usually well educated and above average in intelligence. He is highly mobile and focuses his attacks on specific targets. He uses sophisticated incendiary devices. The crime scenes is organized and there is little or no physical evidence.

Spree Arson
Sets fire at three or more separate locations with no emotional cooling off period between them.

Mass Arson
Involves one offender who sets three or more fires at the same location during a limited time period. Source Information:
Winnipeg Police Service

Crime Classification Manual By John E Douglas, Ann W. Burgess, Allen G. Burgess and Robert K Ressler Lexington Books 1992