Adult Firesetters in Australia: Exploring Characteristics and Recidivism Risk Factors.

  • Ryan Bell

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Criminal firesetting behaviour poses a significant concern for the Australian community, with an outsized impact as measured in morbidity, mortality, and economic costs. The field of firesetting research remains underdeveloped, hampering efforts to develop specialised risk assessment protocols and offender treatment programs for use with firesetters. This manuscript describes three studies conducted to explore the characteristics of adult firesetters in Australia and identify features that predict risk of firesetting behaviour. Variables used for analysis were drawn from the Multi-Trajectory Theory of Adult Firesetting (Gannon et al., 2012), an aetiological model that was designed to highlight risk factors underpinning this behaviour, and it was an additional aim of these studies to test the assumptions of this model.

Study one examined all correctional records pertaining to all offenders convicted of a firesetting offence in Western Australia between 2005 and 2010 (n=354). Comparisons were made between one-time (n=274) and repeat firesetters (n=80) to highlight variables associated with recidivist behaviour. As a secondary aim, comparisons were made between offenders convicted of a bushfire firesetting offence (n=70) and non-bushfire firesetting offenders (n=284), to help develop our understanding of this dangerous category of offender.

Study two utilised the same participant sample reported in study one to perform a form of multivariate analysis known as Multi-Dimensional Scaling (MDS) to explore the underlying typological structure of this sample of firesetters based on both offender personal characteristics and crime scene behaviours. It was expected that the typologies evidenced by this analysis would support the firesetter trajectory structure described by the M-TTAF and, in demonstrating this, provide further validation of the assumptions of the M-TTAF.

Study three reports on a series of interviews and psychometric assessments conducted with firesetters (n=64) and a comparison sample of non-firesetting offenders (n=49) in correctional institutions across Western Australia and Queensland. Comparisons were made between firesetting and non-firesetting offenders as well as between one-time (n=42) and repeat firesetters (n=22). Variables assessing clinical, cognitive and emotional aspects of firesetters were utilised based on the hypothesised domains of the M-TTAF, and prioritised variables that could not be captured faithfully using the retrospective design of study one.

It was a broad conclusion of the study that the suppositions of the M-TTAF were upheld; study three demonstrated that the psychological risk domains hypothesised to be related to firesetting (in particular: developmental disadvantage, mental health deficits, deficits in communication skills, social skills deficits, antisocial beliefs/attitudes, and deviant interest in fire) significantly delineated firesetters from non-firesetting offenders, and study one and three demonstrated that these same variables were associated with firesetting risk, with repeat firesetters presenting with more entrenched vulnerability in the assessed domains. Study two demonstrated that firesetter crime scene behaviours and individual characteristics clustered together in a manner highlighting the typological structure predicted by the M-TTAF. Study one also demonstrated that bushfire firesetters were distinct across a broad range of variables from non-bushfire firesetters, presenting with particular deficits in the domains of emotional regulation and impulsivity, but fewer deficits associated with antisocial traits/risk factors.

Implications of this research are two-fold. First, outcomes from these studies contribute to our knowledge concerning the clinical correlates to firesetting behaviour, broadening our understanding of the drivers of this behaviour. Second, highlighting those factors related to firesetting risk and validation of the risk factors identified by the M-TTAF can be used to advise specialist risk assessment and treatment protocols for use with this group.
Date of AwardFeb 2022
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorKatarina Fritzon (Supervisor) & Bruce Watt (Supervisor)

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