Major Losses

July 1, 2009
A well-developed plan can help prevent arson and vandalism on school and university property.

From 2003 to 2005, fires on school properties cost about $85 million a year. An estimated 14,700 fires required a fire department response: 36 percent were trash fires, 19 percent were fires in open fields, and 43 percent were structural fires.

Sometimes, the needs of school security seem to conflict with the requirements of fire safety. For example, exits may be restricted for security reasons. A risk-control consultant familiar with school design can assist education institutions in reviewing security procedures. This is especially important because injuries in school fires occur at slightly higher rates than in home fires.

By the numbers

The most common causes of fires in elementary schools are cooking (27 percent), incendiary or suspicious activity (25 percent), and heating (12 percent). The primary causes of fires in middle, junior or high schools are incendiary or suspicious activity (47 percent), cooking (15 percent) and heating (7 percent). The highest percentage of fires occurs in middle and high schools.

Juvenile fire-setters generally fall into three categories:

  • Experimentation.
  • Reactionary.
  • Delinquent.

The first group involves elementary children who experiment out of curiosity and lack of supervision. They are five times more likely to do it again unless professional intervention takes place. Youth that do not have adequate problem-solving skills or cannot express their feelings may use fire to convey these feelings. This group also lacks supervision and has easy access to sources of ignition. Delinquents, the third group, typically are older. They set fires that usually are peer-driven and do not understand the legal repercussions associated with setting fires.

A partnership among teachers, administrators, fire service and the judicial system can help identify fire-setters at an early stage.

Opportunity knocks

Arson and vandalism, like theft, are crimes of opportunity. In most cases, the person committing the crime does not usually leave his or her home and head for school with the specific intent of destroying a large part of the building by fire. However, given the right set of circumstances, serious fire or other damage can occur. What are the circumstances?

  • Easy access

    The first and probably most important condition is easy access to the interior of the building when it normally is closed to students. This can happen on weekends or holidays when the building is unoccupied, or it can happen during vacation periods when the normal staffing is reduced or concentrated in small areas, leaving the rest of the building unsupervised.

  • Availability of potentially damaging materials left around a school

    These might include combustibles such as leaves or trash that have accumulated, and can be used to easily start a fire against a portion of the building that can burn, such as a wooden door, or be collected and dumped into an open window and then ignited.

In one case, an elementary-age child went to his school on a Saturday afternoon to play baseball. Finding no one to play with, he picked up golf ball-size rocks and hit them toward the school with his baseball bat. He managed to shatter 87 panes of glass with such force that in some rooms, the battered rocks damaged the chalkboards on the opposite wall.

Large trash receptacles left open and full over holidays and weekends also present opportunities for arson, as well as provide a means to climb to low roofs or open windows when they are placed against the building. Bicycle racks that can be upended also make good ladders, as do shed-like storage structures placed against a building.

Once in a building and undetected, an intruder often can enter and explore many rooms. Again, if opportunity presents itself in the form of access to flammables such as paper goods, combustible art supplies or even chemicals, a serious fire can ensue. An intruder also may be caught by his or her own ignorance, and be seriously injured or killed in the fire or in the rush to escape. Additionally, unlocked food-storage areas or refrigerators and freezers provide an opportunity for significant loss in terms of spoilage or contamination.

Many cases of serious vandalism, such as the destruction of expensive equipment or furnishings, also result in arson as an intruder attempts to cover his or her involvement by setting a fire as a diversion.

Prevention and control

Another unintended, but equally serious, loss associated with vandalism occurs when windows near water lines are broken or left open in freezing weather. The cold air freezes the water, and pipes subsequently burst and flood the area.

Not all school losses associated with vandalism and arson are the result of curiosity and “accidental.” Certain school fires are set deliberately by arsonists whose purpose is revenge or postponing a school experience anticipated to be unpleasant. These youngsters, usually boys between the ages of 8 and 14, set aggressive fires because of their problems with authority figures. Girl arsonists, on the other hand, may set wastebasket fires during the school day to avoid a test or cover their failure to complete an assignment. They often “discover” the fire and assist in its control. These fires can happen in a toilet, corridor or even in the classroom.

A well-developed plan for preventing and controlling vandalism and arson takes into account building characteristics and the condition of the surrounding grounds. It uses staff and community resources effectively, and is supplemented with intrusion barriers or alarm systems.

Another important element is gathering data about building intrusions or loitering on school grounds. Experience has demonstrated that major fires or other acts of vandalism have been preceded by less-noteworthy building intrusions or evidence of loitering.

One way to collect this data is to have a custodian in each building inspect the facility and its immediate perimeter every morning to uncover any evidence of unwarranted activity. Several burnt matches on a floor in any area, disturbed supplies or equipment, open desk drawers or lockers, and unusual litter all are signs of possible illegal entry. Empty soda or beer containers, cigarettes or matches and other evidence of exterior loitering should be noted with a call to the police for added surveillance.

When it becomes common knowledge among students that a school is easy to enter or that a location near a school is a good place to “hang out,” traffic will increase steadily and the likelihood of a major property loss rises.

Such building condition reports should be in writing and sent to the central office, where an administrator can examine the data for evidence of unwanted trends.

Administrators also should consider whether it's financially feasible to install a security system. More and more education institutions are coming to the conclusion that such a system is essential for protecting property and the investment in the children's future.

  • Read the "Program tips" sidebar for information on setting up an arson and vandalism program.

Kravis, CPSI, is an executive risk control consultant with Glatfelter Public Practice, York, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected].

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Percentage of fires in middle, junior or high schools that are caused by incendiary or suspicious activity.

Program tips

As a first step in setting up an arson and vandalism program, the governing body should approve a policy taking a stand against vandalism. The policy statement should recognize that acts of vandalism are crimes against the community, and declare that all acts of vandalism against property will be prosecuted. Also:

  • Identify the staff members that will be responsible for administering the program.

  • Provide a basis for full cooperation among all responsible administrators and those agencies responsible for detection, apprehension and prosecution of vandals.

  • Urge the governing body to take action to reduce the incidence of vandalism and protect property.

  • Limit building access to those pupils, public and staff that have a legitimate purpose in being there.

  • Exercise control and supervision over those who are allowed in the buildings.

  • Make sure that everyone is out of a building when it is closed for the day. Coaches and others who supervise pupil activities late in the day or in the evening should not leave until all the students have left.

  • Assign specific responsibility to the custodial staff, preferably one person in each building, to be sure that all windows, doors and other access ways are closed and locked.

  • Collect and secure all trash and other loose combustible materials so they are placed in outside containers with covers.

  • Prevent access to roof areas by prohibiting vehicles or other objects from being left close to a building — they can be used for climbing.

  • Maintain interior and exterior lighting in such a way as to discourage loitering and reveal intruders by sight from the outside.

  • Verify that police authorities or school personnel are scheduled for drive-around inspections at irregular intervals.

  • Provide adequate illumination and ease of visibility to courtyards, cul-de-sacs and other places not readily visible from outside the building.

  • Be alert to school and community problems that may heighten the risk of fire — for instance, pupils or parents who may harbor strong negative attitudes toward a school. This is a frequent motive for arson.

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