Deliberate firesetting: new treatment theory has impact

Professor Theresa Gannon is Director of the Centre of Research and Education in Forensic Psychology (CORE-FP) at the University of Kent.

Earlier this year, Professor Gannon and her team won the Outstanding Impact in Society award in our Celebrating Impact Prize.

This is the fourth blog in a series which looks into the research behind the five successful awards, whilst touching on how the winning academics will spend their £10,000 prize.


About eight years ago, during my practitioner work, I was asked to assess a man who had sexually offended. I will call this man ‘Mr A’.
When I arrived to conduct my assessment the case was relatively straightforward. Mr A had received treatment for his sexual offending and appeared to have benefited. However, I became deeply troubled when I viewed Mr A’s previous offence history. Mr A had also committed a number of deliberate firesetting offences and yet had never received any treatment for his firesetting behaviour.

The beginnings of a research idea

I walked away puzzled. Why had this man not been treated for his firesetting offences? A quick read of the psychological and psychiatric literature highlighted the problem: deliberate firesetting had not been thoroughly examined by researchers. As a result, no standardised treatment was available since professionals did not know whether these individuals even needed specialist treatment. In addition, research showed that individuals who set fires were just as likely to re-offend as individuals who sexually offend.

It was this experience that kick-started me to write an ESRC standard grant proposal. The proposal focused on developing research to examine whether individuals who had set fires required specialist treatment. A whole series of studies were designed and outlined, and I contacted various prison establishments and National Offender Management Service professionals to capture their views. Numerous professionals expressed enthusiasm for the proposed research.

Grant success

When I received the news that the grant proposal had been successful, I was thrilled. Finally, a chance to develop an evidence-base in the field of firesetting. I assembled a research team (Drs Alleyne, Barnoux, Ó Ciardha, and Tyler) to collaborate on this important work and set up a steering group to facilitate impact development across various avenues as the project unfolded.

Initially, the research was tough going. We reviewed the background literature thoroughly, and set up a grueling research schedule that involved visiting men and women in prisons across the country and interviewing them in detail about their firesetting behaviour. Our work also involved reading out copious questionnaire measures on a one-to-one basis.
Each session took hours.
It was worth it, however, because this work led to us developing the first comprehensive theory of firesetting, new forms of fire interest measurement, and studies showing that men and women who set deliberate fires differ from men and women who offend in other ways.

Most importantly, in our overarching study, we found evidence to suggest that men who set deliberate fires exhibit a much higher level of anger rumination, fire interest and identification with fire than other men who offend. This, and other unique characteristics that we identified, enabled us to argue that individuals who set fires are indeed different from individuals who offend in other ways and so require specialist treatment.

Using our new theory, research findings, and the clinical-forensic literature, we developed a firesetting treatment programme for individuals in prison (the Firesetting Intervention Programme for Prisoners).

Expected impact

Initially, we expected that this treatment would only permeate prisons. We set up a prison treatment site in the South East of England, recruited treatment providers using ESRC funds, and began relocating individuals from prisons all over the country so that they could receive our new treatment. We assessed well over 100 individuals and treated around 70. All individuals who received our new treatment filled out measures before and after treatment to assess the effectiveness of our programme. We also recruited comparison individuals in prison who had set fires but who had not had access to our new treatment. This provided us with a unique treatment evaluation opportunity. Our results were highly promising. Individuals who received our new treatment showed significant reductions in their interest and identification with fire relative to comparisons and these gains remained stable months following treatment completion.

Unexpected impact

While we were concentrating on this prison evaluation, one of our NHS steering group members suggested that we might run a multi-site evaluation of our new treatment using participants from secure hospital sites. Because hospital sites tend to be smaller than prisons, we were cautious about this route to impact. It would be impossible for us to provide the treatment ourselves and so we were unsure how best to ensure the treatment was conducted appropriately.

We decided to make the most of this impact avenue through making adjustments to our treatment (the final programme was named the Firesetting Intervention Programme for Mentally Disordered Offenders), training staff from each hospital site, and ensuring only appropriately qualified individuals (ie those registered with the Health and Care Professions Council) led each treatment group. We provided support for the treatment and asked professionals to return research data on the effectiveness of their treatment. Initially, only a few sites signed up to be involved (around 16 professionals) and 20 patients were treated. However, as professionals spoke to one another, we began to receive more and more requests for training. We ran large group trainings at Kent and also travelled to hospital sites to provide ‘in-house’ training. By 2016, 80 UK firesetters across 30 UK hospital sites had received our new treatment programme.

We received really positive feedback on the programme and word spread quickly. This year, multidisciplinary professionals from North America, Europe, and Australasia began to ask for training on our new treatment. At present, we have trained over 450 professionals from the UK, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, America, Canada, and Australia. Our package continues to play a key role in sentence/care planning, parole board hearings, discharge decisions and the community supervision of prisoners and meets a need not previously met by correctional and secure health care establishments worldwide.

Future impact

We are continuing to train individuals both nationally and internationally to deliver our new treatment (see our Firesetting Information Page). We update our treatment regularly to reflect overall developments in the rehabilitation literature as well as research in the field of deliberate firesetting. We were thrilled to see the impact of our work recognised formally by the ESRC through winning the Outstanding Impact in Society award.

The ESRC prize will help fund the translation of the treatment manual into different languages and support us in teaching practitioners worldwide how to use it. The prize fund may even allow us to develop online training to maximise the impact of this important research.

The 2017 Celebrating Impact Prize is open for applications until 1 December 2016.

Read more about Professor Gannon’s research in the impact case study.


One thought on “Deliberate firesetting: new treatment theory has impact

  1. Pingback: Deliberate firesetting new treatment theory has impact | Real Media - The News You Don't See

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