Groundbreaking research on deliberate firesetting has resulted in the first effective treatment programme for offenders, which is being adopted by Australia, North America and Europe.

Impacts

  • Professor Theresa Gannon's project produced the first comprehensive theory of deliberate firesetting (the Multi-Trajectory Theory of Adult Firesetting; M-TTAF), and the first standardised treatment for the 1,500 firesetters convicted in England and Wales each year.
  • Following treatment, offenders are 3.5 times more likely to reduce their interest in starting fires: the treatment also significantly improves fire safety awareness, attitudes preventing firesetting, and anger management. These improvements are maintained months later.
  • The project developed two new treatment manuals for prisoner and mentally ill firesetters, and training for more than 450 multidisciplinary staff (eg, psychologists, nurses, probation officers) who are now offering treatment nationally across more than 30 UK forensic hospitals.
  • The treatment programme now plays a central role in the care, sentence planning, and discharge and parole decisions of the 150 UK firesetters who have finished the treatment to date. More convicted firesetters are now meeting criteria for release or transfer to less secure establishments.
  • Internationally, M-TTAF is used by probation officers in Australia, and this year more than 100 practitioners will take part in the firesetting training programme in the US, Canada and Australia – the first programme of its kind in these countries.

“All the participants really benefited from the Firesetting Intervention Programme for Mentally Disordered Offenders (FIP-MO), and their feedback was extremely positive. Since the programme, most of the participants have moved into the community and are doing well.” (Dr Peter Beazley, Head of Secure Inpatient Psychology, South Essex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust)

About the research

Every week, criminal firesetting in the UK causes 65 casualties and costs over £40 million. "Prior to our research there was little understanding of the motivations for starting fires, and no standardised treatment," Professor Theresa Gannon explains. "Our research, which for the first time included women as well as men, identified that firesetters are psychologically distinctive and require specialist treatment to target their unique needs."

Working with firesetters, Professor Gannon and her research team unearthed vital information. "For example, some offenders clearly identified with fire in a very unhealthy way, believing they were 'nothing' without fire," she points out. "Some viewed themselves as expert with fire and thought they could control it. Others had committed a firesetting offence without having a serious interest in fire."

Such details helped researchers build the first comprehensive theoretical framework, consisting of five firesetting subtypes, to help understand firesetting behaviour and indicate appropriate individual treatment. During the six-month treatment programme, professionals develop an 'offence chain' that helps the participant understand all the events that led to starting a fire and a plan for acting differently in future. The programme also tackles anger management, fire safety awareness and attitudes towards firesetting.

"In the past professionals working in this area really were at a loss to know what to do with firesetters," Professor Gannon stresses. "As a result, they were not able to help firesetters move back safely into society. Now we have a very clear pathway for treating these individuals which is being rolled out nationally and internationally."