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FALLS PROGRAM AIMS TO HEAD OFF YOUTHFUL FASCINATION WITH FIRE

While firefighters normally extinguish fires with water, Fire Prevention Chief Nicholas Vilardo has been using words to douse them before they get started.

For more than five years, Vilardo and his staff have been trying to prevent disasters by counseling as many as 25 children a year who appear to have an unhealthy fascination with fire.

That assistance is offered through the Fire Department's J-FIRE (Juvenile Fire Intervention Response & Education) program, which "assists families in dealing with fire setting incidents involving children," he said.

"Some children have a tendency to play and experiment with fire, which sometimes can get out of control and result in the loss of lives and property," Vilardo said. "In my career, I've seen 11 children die in fires. Nine were caused by children playing with matches who either caused their own deaths or fatally injured their brothers or sisters."

In an attempt to stop that from happening, Vilardo said firefighting organizations in many areas started up the J-FIRE program in the mid-1990s.

The concept developed after a mother in Rochester discovered one of her children was continually playing with matches. So she took her children to the nearby firehouse to talk with some firefighters.

"They showed them the fire trucks, the lights and sirens. A week later the kid set fire to the family's apartment and killed himself and his brother," Vilardo said.

Since then, many fire departments have taken a more proactive approach in the form of J-FIRE to help kids who are fascinated by fire know what the consequences of their actions could be.

Through the program, which is offered free to city residents, Vilardo said he and his officers meet with children and "properly educate them on how dangerous fire is and how quickly it spreads" and what happens when it does.

He said the children's parents also are involved. The adults are instructed on ways to keep their homes safe from fire. That includes a number of simple steps, such as keeping matches, lighters and other combustibles out of a child's reach, he said.

All information about program participants always remains confidential, he said.

Fire Investigator Thomas Etopio said the program has been a success.

"The vast majority of children have responded in a positive way." He said the children being dealt with "aren't bad kids. The problem is many of them are between 5 and 10 years old, and they don't understand."

Vilardo said the program receives referrals from child welfare and child protective agencies when workers observe that type of behavior. Parents also have called when they suspect their child's interest in fire is becoming a problem.

He stressed that it is not uncommon for a child to try to burn paper or a toy inside or outside a house.

"Kids are curious, but they need to be supervised and handled in a proper manner and know what fire can do. They need to realize that a typical fire will double in size every 20 seconds and, if it gets out of control, they can be injured. Mostly it's a lack of maturity."

But once a child is educated through the program, which uses various methods of getting the message across, including videos, they can understand the possible consequences setting fires.

"We show them if they continue to act in that manner (playing with fire), either they or someone else would be injured and killed by their actions," Vilardo said. "Most kids who get hurt have (played with fire) many times."

Etopio said most kids who set fires "have no intention of hurting anyone."

Villardo said the program's specially trained intervention specialists also follow up with the people they've worked with to make sure the lessons have been taken to heart and to provide additional information and support to the families involved.

People may contact the J-FIRE program by calling 286-4728.

e-mail: pwestmoore@buffnews.com