Saturday, April 17, 2010

Ann Arbor Firebug? The answer is yes.

Two weeks ago in this space I asked if Ann Arbor had a firebug.  There had been several suspicious fires overnight, including one that killed a 22 year-old resident.  The causes of those fires are still under investigation.  Last night, there were four car fires in the area surrounding the University of Michigan campus, all of them intentionally set.  Yes, Virginia, we have a serial arsonist. 

We often find ourselves saying, about things like this, "It has to stop before someone gets hurt."  But someone already has gotten hurt, and whether that particular fire was set intentionally or not, you might think that the death of Renden LeMaster would cause whoever is responsible for those that are arson to think twice.  Apparently you would be wrong.  It is way outside of my paygrade to try to explain why someone would do this, especially given that someone has died, but obviously someone is.

So, what does this mean for people who live in Ann Arbor?  How do you live life knowing that there is someone intentionally burning things next to buildings (all of the fires have started in cars or trash adjacent to inhabited apartment buildings or houses) and that not only could this be dangerous, we know it already is?  Should you be scared, and if so, how scared is appropriate?

This situation lends itself to a feeling of helplessnes.  Someone out there, we don't know who, may or may not be about to do something which may affect us, and if they do it's really bad but there's no way to know.  The antidote to helplessness is action, and so this is a good time to follow the adage, "Prepare for the worst and hope for the best." 

Now is the time for Ann Arbor residents to do what we all know we should do anyway but few of us actually do, and that is develop and practice a safety plan for our homes for fires.  Every person in every home should know at least two ways out of the house and where to meet after evacuating.  We should check our smoke detectors every 6 months.  We should tell our children to drop to the floor and crawl when they hear the alarm and feel the door before opening it, and also that, no matter how scared they are, never ever to hide during a fire -- kids naturally do this, and firefighters report that a large number of child fatalities in fires occur in closets and under beds where the rescuers cannot find the children.

Once that is out of the way, it's time to try to put things into some perspective.  Ann Arbor has a population of about 114,000 people, and thus far five of them have had their home burned down in the current string of fires, with one fatality.  That is five and one too many respectively, and obviously this is not a small deal for those people.  However, it also represents four thousandths of one percent of the population.  The chances of any one family being the victim here are still incredibly small.

So, how scared should you be?  However scared you are.  Some people will have no concerns, and some will have a lot.  That depends on you, your temperment, your past experience with fires, your overall anxiety level, and many other factors.  However scared you are, that's how scared you are.  There is no point stressing over whether you should be stressed.  Put that to the side, do what you can do to keep yourself and your family safe, remind yourself of the tiny odds involved, and give yourself a break.  Eventually, this will pass.  In the meantime, we're all entitled to feel a little nervous, or not.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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