Arsons Within Fire Companies Fray Nerves, Raise Questions
What makes a volunteer fireman—a public servant in theory—set fires on properties owned by the very people they are supposed to protect? That was the first question on the minds of several Franklin Township residents who were recently victims of an arsonist who was allegedly unsuccessful in his attempts to set a number of fires in Franklin and Burlington Townships.
On March 21 and 22, state police were dispatched to properties in Franklin Township where bales of hay had been set on fire. Dana and Kay McNeal lost at least 55 large 5-by-6-foot bales and the large tarp that covered them. David Allen lost only two bales of hay, but might have lost one of his barns had it not been for the quick action of two of his neighbors who called 911 and pulled the bales away from the structure. The investigation led police to Franklin Volunteer Fire Department (FVFD) firefighter Matthew Brian Chilson, 22, the only company member to respond to both blazes after they were called in.
When police interviewed Chilson, he allegedly admitted to torching the hay bales and took a patrolman to a nearby trailer owned by John and Sandy Borden where he had set a fire that did not take. He allegedly also admitted to tossing a lit road flare into a barn in Burlington Township that burnt itself out. When word got around that a firefighter was responsible for the blazes, the victims admit that the concept was unnerving.
“I was disgusted and shocked,” said Sandy Borden, who has volunteered at FVFD off and on for the past five years. “It’s very scary.”
“I’m upset that it happened, but I’m thankful that it wasn’t worse,” related Kay McNeal, who discovered the March 21 blaze as the school bus she was driving crested a hill near the fields where the hay bales were stored. The McNeals reported the greatest loss, approximately $2,900. While they still have enough hay for their horses, they intended to sell the remainder.
“I don’t think that he understood the value of what he destroyed,” Allen said of Chilson.
Each of the victims agreed that they are in a “Catch 22” situation, where they need the services of a volunteer fire company but are also at their mercy.
“This is a remote area,” Allen stated. “We’re blessed to have a fire department.” Allen also remarked during a previous interview, “You want to support your local volunteers but, when something like this happens, it kind of turns you off.”
Allen asserted that he doesn’t hold anything against the fire department, and both McNeal and Borden said that they will continue to support FVFD. One of their shared concerns, however, is that Chilson allegedly used road flares from the firehouse and a gas can that was marked as FVFD property, and they wondered aloud what might have been done to limit the arsonist’s access to potentially dangerous materials.
Unfortunately, multiple attempts to reach FVFD and fire chief Donald Stranger were unsuccessful. But several other leaders of similarly-sized fire companies offered some insight as to why controlling supplies and detecting potential arsonists within their midst is an ongoing challenge.
“The way that most fire companies are set up, everybody that is a member in good standing has a key or card to the fire hall and the building,” offered Wyalusing Valley Volunteer Fire Department (WVVFD) chief Adam Dietz. “It’s an honesty-based system.”
Herrick Township Volunteer Fire Company assistant chief Jason Boatman agreed. Both companies apply a 90-day probationary period to new volunteers and have rejected members on the basis of attitude, attendance, and other issues.
“It’s done on a person-by-person basis,” Dietz said of the process of determining whether or not a new volunteer is a good fit for the company. Once the firefighter has been accepted into the ranks, he or she remains a member until they quit or are expelled, the latter of which doesn’t happen very often.
“There’s not as many people volunteering as there used to be,” Boatman stated. “We need everyone that we can get.”
As to what motivates a firefighter to become an arsonist, Dietz surmised that age and a lack of experience might have a lot to do with it. In most of the cases he has read, the defendants are between 15 and 30 years old.
“They get bored and they look for the excitement and the adrenaline rush. After hundreds of hours of state-qualified training, they get itchy,” Dietz related, adding, “I do believe that the majority of them (in fire companies) truly want to give back to the community and help people.”
In the past, Dietz continued, fire companies conducted controlled burns of condemned structures, which provided invaluable experience for young firefighters while providing a dose of the excitement the new recruits were seeking, as well as a greater respect for the nature of a major conflagration. Because of environmental concerns, controlled burns are no longer permitted, and fire companies must arrange for instruction at official training centers, which are few and far between. The buildings at such sites are concrete and are not actually consumed by the blazes.
“There’s no floor to give out underneath you or walls to close in on you,” Dietz explained. WVVFD responds primarily to vehicle accidents, battling no more than three significant fires per year. Dietz suggested that bringing back controlled burns might be one way to reduce incidents of arson within fire companies.
Although there are known to have been fires set by local firefighters in the past, there have been no such occurrences at the Wyalusing or Herrick Township companies during the time that Dietz and Boatman have served as leaders of their respective departments.
“I’ve never had to go through it, and I hope I never do,” said Dietz, who acknowledged that such an event can give a fire department a reputation that is hard to shake.
“It’s hard enough to keep the firefighters that we do have,” Borden said of FVFD. “They’re not paid, and there’s no real incentive for them to belong.”
Dietz and Boatman put a slightly different spin on a subject that Dietz admits is “very touchy.”
“Firemen do have a unique mindset. When something is on fire, most people run from it. Firemen run to it. They do like what they do or they wouldn’t do it,” he stated.
“I’ve heard it said that there’s a really fine line between someone who is a firefighter and an arsonist, (not unlike) the fine line between genius and insanity,” said Boatman.
“I would hope that the justice system would have some kind of program that could help (Chilson),” Allen suggested.
“My hope is that (Chilson) gets the help that he needs to come back to society as a better person,” added McNeal.
Chilson waived his right to a preliminary hearing on March 30 on counsel of public defender Helen Stolinas. He now faces arraignment in the Common Pleas Court on May 2.
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