Specialists from a variety of backgrounds in Kennebec County are collaborating to offer a more cohesive system for identifying and helping young people who are prone to starting fires.

Augusta-based Crisis & Counseling Centers has partnered with the Augusta Police and Fire Departments, as well as other regional agencies, to form the Juvenile Fire Safety and Intervention Collaborative. The program, set to launch by this summer, is designed to increase inter-agency communication to help identify and treat young people who start fires or exhibit fire-setting behaviors.

“The system is fragmented,” said Hannah Longley, clinical manager of crisis programs for Crisis & Counseling. “The need is to make sure we’re all collaborating and these children are getting the services that they need.”

Augusta Fire and Police departments in December began the process of bringing agencies together. Fire department Deputy Chief Dave Groder and police Detective Tori Tracy brought on board Crisis & Counseling as well as the Office of Maine State Fire Marshal, child protective services, the District Attorney’s office, juvenile probation and safety departments in other towns across Kennebec County.

Longley said those discussions confirmed that behaviors and incidents were slipping through the cracks. Cases handled by one agency were going unreported to other agencies that could have been involved to address the behavior and underlying issues. Longley said the collaborative will improve communication and treatment made available to the youngsters.

“We’re trying to divert the kids from the justice system and connect them to the right services and supports early on,” she said. “My goal is to help them and their families before they end up in more serious or dangerous situations. We want to intervene before they are potentially incarcerated.”

The communications deficiency that has existed makes it difficult to know how many children the program will impact in Kennebec County. The U.S. Fire Administration has reported that 41 percent of total arson arrests in 2010 were for children 17 or younger. The report indicated 24 percent of those arrested were younger than 15. Longley said the percentages might be even higher in Maine because it is a rural state where bonfires and wood stoves are prevalent.

Groder said the number of fires started by juveniles in Augusta fluctuates.

“We can go for months and never see anybody,” he said. “Then the need just skyrockets during school vacations or summer breaks.”

Under the collaborative, when someone who works with young people, or their parents, discovers symptoms consistent with a potential fire starter, the child will be referred to trained professionals who will conduct a thorough risk assessment. The specialist will work with the collaborative to make recommendations and develop an action plan. That plan could include family counseling, safety classes or educational materials. The child’s caregiver, or another adult willing to participate, must be involved in the process. Unless court ordered, the process will continue only with the parents permission, Longley said.

There can be a wide range of behavior that can trigger concern that a child might be at risk for setting fires. Those behaviors can include experimenting with fire or setting fires at home or elsewhere. Children often have a natural curiosity about fire, but that curiosity can grow to cause alarm in parents, educators or counselors. The assessments, which are already available upon referral, are designed to determine if the fire interest is natural or leading to more dangerous behavior. Firefighters and Crisis & Counseling clinicians are now trained to make those assessments.

“The goal is to provide an outlet for education for these kiddos,” Groder said. “It’s obviously not punishment.”

The collaboration is not new to Maine. Both York and Cumberland counties have similar programs. Pam Tourangeau, director of the York County Juvenile Fire Safety and Intervention Collaborative, has volunteered advice and training to her counterparts in Kennebec County. Longley said the collaborative, which does not yet have funding, has relied on specialists like Tourangeau and agencies like the state fire marshal’s office, which has organized free training.

Kennebec County schools, mental health providers, parents or anyone else who becomes concerned can refer any child up to age 17 by calling the Augusta Fire Department. The collaborative may expand if needed.

“The goal for this program is not to just educate the juvenile about fire safety, but also to educate the parents and caregivers about fire safety,” Tracy said. “It is a program for the juveniles and their families and caregivers.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642[email protected]Twitter: @CraigCrosby4