Juvenile fire-setting is a category of mischief that often gets overlooked by the public, which is why Anoka County officials started what is now the longest-running fire-intervention program in the state, dating to 1993.
But the program has faded in recent years and could be on the way out. This is not because juvenile fire-setting isn't a problem anymore.
The cornerstone was a monthly class covering fire laws, behavior and safety, taught by firefighters, at the Lino Lakes Correctional Facility. At its peak in the mid-1990s, more than 120 young people attended throughout a year. Some offenders are required to attend, but the program is open to anyone.
Attendance has dwindled significantly, with an average of only five kids at quarterly classes. The decline can be attributed to a decrease in overall juvenile crime or a lack of publicity about the program, said longtime coordinator Harlan Lundstrom.
Participation is so low that Lundstrom is considering scrapping the program, but not before he meets with other firefighters and explores ways to pump new blood into it. A big boost may come from Deputy State Fire Marshal Kathi Osmonson, whose main focus is her role as a juvenile fire-setter intervention specialist.
"There is a misconception that it is natural for kids to play with matches," she said. "They don't know that fire moves fast and is deadly."
Osmonson said it would be a shame if Anoka County's program didn't survive. Although cases involving juvenile fires often are underreported to police, she has been inundated with calls from firefighters, parents and social workers looking for services and programs for young people.
Osmonson spent 25 years as a firefighter with the Spring Lake Park-Blaine-Mounds View Fire Department, where Lundstrom is assistant chief.
Osmonson said many fire departments may be using outdated reference materials, so she is working to develop a "Minnesota model" and toolbox that can be viewed online. There are at least 14 city or county juvenile fire intervention programs in the state, she said. Nationally, fire prevention efforts are swinging toward juveniles, she said.
Lundstrom has actively promoted Anoka County's program for most of the time it has existed. Classes last nearly five hours and were purposely planned to be at a correctional facility, he said. Participants are between 10 and 17, and parents are required to stay for at least the program's first hour.
"There are inmates at the prison who have been referred to the program," he said. "It's not intended to be like a Scared Straight program, but we use the prison to make a point."
Seeking a solution
Anoka County's program has made an impact on juveniles, Lundstrom said, and the county created a database to keep track of those who participated in case they re-offend. He is looking to see if a national database can be set up.
Right now, Lundstrom said it will be his decision whether to pull the plug on the program. He has talked to other fire chiefs about taking it over, but said there is either a lack of interest or a lack of personnel to run the program.
He also asked the county attorney's office if it would handle the administrative duties while the fire departments could provide instructors. The Anoka County attorney's office said it would revisit the issue early next year.
The next class is in September. Lundstrom will gauge attendance through the end of the year.
"If we don't have enough kids, I really don't see any point of continuing," he said.
David Chanen • 612-673-4465