First you must catch your arsonist; there's the rub
There may be better ways to fight arson.
As well as launching a small army of 150 arson officers as part of Operation Firesetter, the Victorian government is planning to spend $5 million on tracking arsonists using GPS devices, much like those used with some sex offenders. Of course, it's a clever idea, but it won't have much of an impact on arson. Why?
Fairfax Media recently reported government figures that the target population covers only five known arsonists in Victoria, which roughly matches published research figures over time suggesting a probable growth rate of only two extra people per year. Now compare this with the actual number of suspected arson attacks in Victoria - about 3000 a year, for which only 1 per cent of offenders are convicted.
Even among this small group, the typical arsonist is not the almost mythical ''pyromaniac'' driven by uncontrollable urges. Whereas 15 per cent of those charged with sex offences have been previously convicted of a sex crime, only 1 per cent of arsonists have ever lit an illegal fire in the past.
According to official crime figures, the Australian arsonist tends to be between the ages of 30 and 70 years (32 per cent) or else below the age of 20 (54 per cent). Adult offenders are mostly described as versatile and opportunistic, convicted in the past for violence or drug offences. Granted, 10 per cent will light a fire in the future, but the difference in past and future fire-setting is already due to successful surveillance of convicted offenders.
Equally important are local communities. Monash researchers leading the Australian Bushfire Arson Prevention Initiative have shown that local Victorian communities supply both formal and informal anonymous tips authorities.
Where it becomes much more complicated is in the community and police handling of younger offenders, among whom three subtypes tend to emerge, all of whom need to be approached with strategies other than tracking or judicial punishment. The first type is simply a group of kids causing an accident with experimental fire-play. This group needs parental and school-based education on fire safety, and there already exist services suitable for them, ranging from the Juvenile Fire Awareness and Intervention Program run by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade to the work of Scouts Australia.
Next is a small subgroup of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. What this group needs is more funding to help redirect them from the courts to existing health services in the Department of Human Services.
In both cases, the desirable strategy can take place only if parents and caregivers can make reports trusting the system to take a preventive rather than punitive approach, and certainly not fearing that their children may be fitted with a tracking device.
Likewise, the third group covers highly disadvantaged children who have been subject to child abuse or neglect. This has since been confirmed by several studies, especially among girls (10 per cent of arsonists are female). Once again, prevention and support is better than punishment after the fact. In this group, fire-setting can be a cry for help, much like self-harm or even child suicide.
In community surveys run by Monash, plenty of people want to ''hang, draw and quarter'' the convicted arsonist - and would likely support GPS tracking - but an equal proportion of people want the suspect to get help and support.
Many of these are parents and one of the biggest obstacles to reporting, apart from fear of revenge by an adult offender, is fear of community stigma being attached to self, family or friends. These findings tell us that the community values a balanced judicial approach to a complicated problem, and fears must be handled gently to encourage community reporting.
GPS tracking might help a little, but I'm not sure it warrants $5 million worth of investment when the money could go a long way towards supporting more effective measures that support local reporting of both child and adult offenders to police and firefighting agencies.
The cost of arson in Victoria, according to recent Monash research, is $1.1 billion and this doesn't include actual human costs. We all know the costs and I, like many readers, was personally touched by Black Saturday. So, while I commend the state government for wanting to tackle arson, GPS tracking should not be the first priority.
Since Black Saturday, work on arson has made leaps and bounds with collaboration among communities, CrimeStoppers, Victoria Police, MFB, the Gippsland Arson Prevention Initiative and Monash. None of us had access to $5 million to make it happen and most participants were volunteers, especially on the multi-agency youth arson reduction project led by the CFA, which is now a world-leading initiative. Funding for this work and for the operational needs of fire and policing services more generally was cut this year, despite predicted increases in wildfires, faster spread and intensity as we come out of a particularly wet season.
Australia should be celebrated as a leader in arson research, especially in Victoria, where it is a major problem that needs real solutions among many agencies and fire-affected communities.
Tracking convicted arsonists may make it sound like we're all safe but it may have an unintended consequence, discouraging community co-operation with police and creating a false sense of security.
GPS tracking follows a tiny group of convicted offenders; but community vigilance is needed for the several thousand more deliberately lit fires each year in Victoria. And people must feel safe enough to report such fires without fear of punishment from a local adult offender or even by the state government in terms of youth.
Paul Read is a research fellow with the Australian Bushfire Arson Prevention Initiative focused on natural disasters resilience with the Monash Sustainability Institute.