By Matt Zapotosky and Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 6, 2009
Two recent volunteer firefighters in Prince George's County were charged with arson Thursday amid accusations that while on duty, they slipped into a vacant house, set fire to a sofa using a signal flare and returned minutes later to help extinguish the blaze.
The allegations, which officials said could lead to more charges against more firefighters, highlight a phenomenon that investigators and psychologists worldwide have studied for years: firefighters setting fires for the thrill of putting them out.
"The excitement is to respond to the fire -- the action, the results from speeding to the fire with sirens blaring and suppressing the fire with bystanders figuratively applauding, that sort of thing," said Timothy G. Huff, a former FBI criminal profiler who has consulted on and written studies on the topic. "The hero thing is part of the excitement."
He and others are quick to say that such people represent only a tiny fraction of all firefighters. The scope of the problem is unclear because no one keeps data nationwide on the profession or volunteer affiliation of those who set fires. And it's difficult to generalize about what motivates arsonists.
Jerome Engle, 46, a longtime volunteer firefighter who spent time at several stations in Prince George's, and James R. Martinez, 24, a Prince George's volunteer who also is a paid firefighter in Montgomery County, were charged in the case. They were indicted on charges including second-degree arson, burglary and malicious burning.
The possible involvement of volunteer firefighters "is inexcusable and leaves me without words to describe their actions," said Prince George's Fire Chief Eugene A. Jones.
Engle, Martinez and an unspecified number of other volunteer firefighters under investigation in this and other incidents have been suspended from running emergency calls, said Mark Brady, a Prince George's fire spokesman. Martinez also remains on administrative leave from the Montgomery department.
Engle and Martinez were not available to comment. Officials said they were being questioned by investigators Thursday afternoon. It is not clear whether they have hired lawyers. In an interview published on the WUSA (Channel 9) Web site Thursday, Engle denied setting the fires. He said he watched as three other firefighters set it and left an anonymous letter to the chief and president of the Riverdale Volunteer Fire Department, alerting them to the incident.
Engle faces additional charges. On Friday, he will appear in court on a charge that he stole a nozzle from a fire station. He has posted photos on a firefighters Web site, under his personal page, of him shirtless and smoking a cigarette, appearing to prepare to rappel down the side of a building.
He is the author of the self-published book "Probie Days: Kentland Engine Company 33 Second Busiest Engine in the Nation." At the time of the alleged arson, he volunteered for the Riverdale Volunteer Department.
Engle left for another volunteer department a year and a half ago, and Martinez resigned for personal reasons in March, a Riverdale department official said.
Firefighters who commit arson generally strike in their jurisdictions, Huff said. "It's common sense when you think about it," he said. "Otherwise, they wouldn't be responding to them."
Huff cited three common motives of firefighter-arsonists, ranking excitement above profit and revenge.
In Pennsylvania, Fire Commissioner Ed Mann said he has visited about 10 departments over the past nine years in which one of their own had set a fire.
"The first thing they say to you is, 'He would have been the last person we would have thought of,' " Mann said. But seen through the prism of arson charges, it often becomes clear that the firefighter had an unnatural knack for anticipating where fires would break out. "You know, Johnny is always the first one at the scene at all the calls, even if he lives across town," is how Mann put it.
Pamela Kulbarsh, a psychiatric nurse and former member of the San Diego County Psychiatric Emergency Response Team, said firefighter-arsonists often are volunteers who grow bored at their stations.
"A lot of people really crave that excitement and that attention," she said.
Kulbarsh said some firefighter-arsonists have mental health issues such as anti-social behavior or histrionic personality disorder.
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.