Last reviewed 13 July 2015

Although fire-related incidents and casualties are reducing across the UK, the slowest reduction is occurring in deliberate fire setting, which includes arson. Indeed, despite the decrease in incidents, the costs of arson in the UK to business, the Government and insurers are increasing. Mike Sopp explains.

Aside from the possible injuries caused by arson attacks, the direct damage done to the building or assets, the economic costs, the future to a business and the effect on jobs can be considerable.

As with any threat to an organisation, the control of arson risks will require a balance to be drawn between the level of risks involved and the costs of controlling those risks typically through good security management.

Arson threats

Arson is a crime defined in the Criminal Damage Act 1971, as the intention to destroy or damage property without lawful excuse by fire or to endanger life by fire. Although the statistics are not precise, it is thought by the Association of British Insurers and the Arson Prevention Forum, that arson related fires cost the UK, as a whole, £1.7 billion a year.

Research suggests that arson is most typically associated with opportunistic vandalism carried out by juvenile males in the hours of darkness. However, it can also be associated with one of the following.

  1. Criminal acts, such as theft of property, assets or goods.

  2. A grievance towards the company or employees occupying the premises.

  3. Economic or political motivation.

  4. Mental instability.

  5. An attempt to defraud insurers.

All commercial properties can be at risk from arson and a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment completed for the premises can assist in identifying the threat of arson.

When considering the threat of arson occurring, there can be many factors to consider, not least, the premises location, the type of business and/or activities carried out, specific assets that may be of interest to others, the potential for arsonist to be in or around the premises (eg public, contractors, etc) and the current economic viability of the business.

Other factors may also have to be considered, such as the proximity of the premises to other sites that could attract large numbers of people, particularly young people (such as sports venues, music venues and large housing estates).

If the premises are in a quiet, remote location away from emergency services and the general public, this may also increase the probability of arson occurring. There may also be an increased probability if surrounding premises carry a high risk of arson.

Current security measures

Current security measures utilised by the organisation will influence the potential threat of arson occurring and should be taken into consideration when assessing the risks.

The “external evaluation” should identify how well movement is controlled into and out of the establishment, as well as natural surveillance of the site. For the building or structure, thought should be given to the threat from arsonist being able to enter the premises. The following should be given consideration:

  • perimeter protection and current quality and/or condition of boundary fencing/or walls, number of access points and how these are controlled, etc

  • the strength of the building envelope, including windows and doors’ security along with other means of access such as overhanging trees, fixed ladders, etc

  • access control into the site and the building for staff, visitors and contractors along with key holding procedures and protection of specific assets

  • the current detection of and response to intruders through fixed intruder alarm systems, CCTV, lighting and security guarding both during operating hours and when premises are unoccupied.

Another factor in the probability of an arson attack occurring is in relation to the sources of ignition and combustible materials that are available to the opportunist arsonist. As part of the assessment process, any significant sources of ignition such as waste materials and flammable materials should be identified that can assist an arsonist.

The key factors to consider are the current arrangements for the secure storing of such materials, so that they do not present a readily available source of fuel to a would-be-arsonist.

Clearly, if an arson fire does occur, the measures to mitigate the unwanted outcomes from such an event will be similar to those for other types of fires.

However, it must be taken into account that arson fires tend to cause more significant damage than other types of fire, primarily because they are lit in multiple or vulnerable locations, are started using accelerants and often involve fire precautions (eg fire doors) being compromised in some way.

To assist in the completion of the risk assessment, the Fire Protection Authority publication, Arson Prevention — The Protection of Premises from Deliberate Fire Raising, contains a useful checklist.

Taking action

Having taken into consideration current security measures, if a significant, intolerable arson fire risk is determined as being present, the organisation will have to consider what further measures can be taken to eliminate or reduce the risk further.

No one type of protection should be relied upon to the exclusion of all others. It is important that various layers of protection are considered. The objective is to strengthen the site, premises and systems to an extent that the balance of risk favours the target as opposed to the attacker.

When deciding upon what additional type(s) of protection that can be utilised, it is usual practice to work inwards from the perimeter of the site, keeping in mind the following basics of control:

  • physical barriers (active devices) which are the means of preventing access either to the site and/or the premises within the site and specific assets or materials, etc

  • detection and communication systems (passive devices) which act as a delaying tactic and do not actually physically prevent an intruder from pursuing their objectives

  • a human response to the warning of an intruder given by the passive measures that responds at the incipient stage of notification.

The active devices can fall within a number of categories, including boundary walls or fences with appropriate control of any access and egress points. Anti-intruder fences are now becoming common that provide a degree of resistance to climbing and breaching.

Similarly in respect of the premises, openings into the premises (doors and windows) should be secured in an appropriate manner, for example, by the use of locks, barriers, strengthened glass and so on.

A door management system should be in place to ensure that access and egress through gates and doors are controlled and are secured when necessary. Any key possession system used should be well controlled, and only used/or issued to those who require such use. If necessary, a key withdrawal and return system may be employed.

Passive devices act as a deterrent, signal and alert to the presence of intruders, assist in monitoring progress of intruders and provide evidence of the incident. This will include lighting, closed circuit television, intruder alarms, monitoring systems, etc.

Clearly, passive devices will only be effective if there is a suitable response at the earliest possible stage. As such, intruder detection devices should preferably be located at the perimeter and continue in-depth through the site and premises.

The method of responding will depend upon a number of factors, not least, if the site has security personnel on-site or is dependent upon remote monitoring and response.

All security measures should be kept under review and take account of any new information that may indicate the potential for an arson attack to occur.

Further information

Arson Prevention Forum:

  • Arson Prevention — The Protection of Premises from Deliberate Fire Raising.

  • European Exchange of Best Practice.

British Standards Institution:

  • BS 8220: Security of Buildings Against Crime (Parts 2 and 3)