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Some firefighters start fires for glory and heroism

There is a thrill, a tense excitement, that comes when you work under pressure. When the job is done well, supervisors or the community offer praise and admiration. Many people live for that thrill. Some, including a small number of volunteer firefighters, crave it so much that they will create situations where they can act.

That's part of the explanation local fire officials offer for a recent paradox: Firefighters have been accused of setting the blazes they are trained to put out.

They set fires to "receive a little recognition that you're doing a good job," said Mike Connell, head of the Citrus County Fire Prevention Unit.

Arson textbooks offer other reasons: money; wanting to be a hero and put the fire out; and desire to practice firefighting technique.

Two Citrus firefighters have been accused of arson-related charges in recent months.

Floyd Bedford, chief of the Floral City Volunteer Fire Department, is accused of intentionally setting a brush fire in December. Timothy Knowles, a new volunteer with the Beverly Hills fire service, is charged with setting two small blazes in January.

Both cases are pending in the courts. State officials decided recently that Bedford's case would not be directed to a pretrial intervention program that would keep him out of the court system.

The problem is not common, but it does crop up now and again, officials say.

In September, for example, a Palm Harbor volunteer firefighter was accused of setting brush fires throughout northern Pinellas County.

About two years ago, five Pasco County volunteers were accused of starting fires and then racing back to the station to await the alarm.

Citrus has handled a few firefighter arson cases in the past, officials say.

For Citrus official Connell, the excitement is what drives most firefighters to commit arson. Most of the guilty parties are new volunteers looking for a way to spice up their lives.

"I don't think there's ever any intent to do damage," Connell said. "They want to do the damn job so bad they're twisted."

John Russo, also with the fire prevention unit, pointed out that economics could play a role.

Citrus firefighters are given $7.50 each time they respond to a call to pay for the cost of transportation and clothing damage. That doesn't sound like much, Russo said. But a few extra calls a month can help raise money for a car payment or mortgage.

Other firefighters simply love the camaraderie that comes with putting out a fire.

"They have a desire to do good and to help," Fire Administrator Mike Petellat said. But those desires become twisted.

No matter what causes a firefighter to commit arson, other firefighters have little patience with the problem.

"A firefighter who sets a fire, that just sours me," Connell said, "because the people's trust is in you."

William Farrell, chief of the Beverly Hills department, has said his department was saddened by the incident with Knowles. Officials may drop him from the fire service.

Petellat said he asks that people realize that almost all volunteers are dedicated. Like any other group, they have a few bad members. But he emphasized that volunteers must undergo a screening process and rigorous training.

His message to the people: "Have faith in their volunteer firefighters."