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Amherst Fire Department grant aimed at arson prevention

Reaching youth who have intentionally set fires or are at risk of committing acts of arson is the aim of a program created through the Northwestern District Attorney’s office.

To expand the efforts of the Northwestern Juvenile Fire Intervention Response, Education and Safety Partnership, or NoFIRES coalition, the Amherst Fire Department has obtained a $2,100 grant that will be used to purchase a laptop, DVDs and LCD projector so the program can be taken on the road.

The grant award was presented at the central fire station last week.

Firefighter Stephen Gaughan, who supervises the program for Amherst, said the grant will allow the three firefighters trained in dealing with juvenile fire setting to get to places in Amherst, such as apartment complexes and neighborhoods, where they can directly serve youth who need to go through the program.

“This gives the program more flexibility to reach out to a larger group of juveniles, if necessary,” Gaughan said.

Gaughan submitted the application to FM Global, a global property insurance company with an office in Norwood.

“It’s a huge benefit,” Gaughan said. “We’re grateful for that. It will help expand the program.”

Amherst, along with Northampton and Greenfield, are the central participants in the NoFIRES partnership, an independent nonprofit organization which serves all 47 communities within the Northwestern district attorney’s office.

Amherst’s portable unit can be taken to several communities on the east side of the Connecticut River.

Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson said it is important to reach children inclined to set fires while they are young. The program is not only about education, but possible clinical referral and addressing the underlying issues that may cause a child to set a fire, Nelson said.

The initiative was launched nearly two years ago, when District Attorney David Sullivan met with community leaders to discuss the lack of educational and treatment services for the few dozen youth who set fires each year in the Northwestern District.

In January, the district attorney’s office applied for a $47,000 seed grant from Gov. Deval Patrick’s Challenge Innovation Grant, which supports partnerships and collaborations between agencies and communities.

The NoFIRES program, directed by Floyd Ashlaw, a licensed social worker, actively began educating children ages 3 to 16 in March, Sullivan said.

Sullivan expects the program will reach about 60 children in its first calendar year.

Local and state police and fire departments, court personnel and social services agencies, as well as mental health care providers, refer children to NoFIRES. Both the children and families receive the appropriate fire safety education program.

Amherst’s ability to take the program to other communities will help. “It’s really going to have an impact with that mobile unit,” Sullivan said.

Town Manager John Musante said the effort is an example of how partnerships are essential to public safety.

FM Global awards about 250 similar grants annually, totaling $250,000.

Ray Phillips, vice president and operations manager for the company’s Norwood office, said FM Global’s grant program combating arson has expanded to encompass all types of fire prevention.

“We are unique in operating under the belief that all losses can be prevented,” Phillips said.

Gaughan said similar initiatives in the past, like a youth fire setting prevention class, have taken place, but NoFIRES is more formal in its firefighter training and assistance from the juvenile offenders division in the district attorney’s office.

Gaughan calls youth fire setting a hidden problem. He said six to eight children in Amherst need help each year.

Sullivan said he is planning to expand the NoFIRES program to Holyoke, where the problems of youth setting fires is more prevalent than in Hampshire and Franklin counties, as well as to the Athol and Orange area.

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