Australian Institute of Criminology

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Estimating the number of incidents

Estimating the number of arson incidents annually is difficult due to the offence often being aggregated into broader categories of property crime or criminal damage. For example, while the ABS estimates that there were 649,900 victims of malicious property damage in 2011–12, this figure includes not only arson but also graffiti and offences against livestock and animals (ABS 2012b). Similarly, recent estimates from the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission (2010) and the AIC (see Bryant 2008; Muller 2009) have focused exclusively on deliberately lit vegetation fires which form only one type of arson present in Australia.

Alternatively, a national figure can be obtained by aggregating publicly available data on arson that are available from each state and territory police jurisdiction. Based on these figures, there were approximately 14,975 incidents of arson recorded by police in 2011–12. This is likely to be an underestimate owing to the various ways in which different police jurisdictions define arson for statistical purposes, as well as the omission of unreported incidents.

To estimate the number of arson incidents not reported to police, Mayhew (2003a, 2003b) used a multiplier of 3.0. Applying this to the above police recorded crime figure, in 2011–12 there were an estimated 44,925 incidents of arson.

Estimating property loss

Both Rollings (2008) and Smyth (2011) calculated the loss associated with arson by inflating Mayhew’s (2003a, 2003b) original figure as this remains the most comprehensive estimate available. Mayhew (2003b) used a ‘best estimates’ approach and synthesised information from a variety of sources including Victoria Police and the Victorian Metropolitan Fire Brigade, Western Australia’s Fire Service and the Insurance Council of Australia. Most of this information was obtained through private communication and therefore updated figures are not publicly available. As a result, Mayhew’s (2003a) estimate of $730m has been inflated to 2011 prices with the estimated property loss associated with arson totalling $971m for 2011.

Medical costs

Calculating the related medical costs associated with arson is not possible as it unknown how many injuries are sustained as a result this offence. While some jurisdictional fire brigades do record casualty numbers, those that resulted from arson will be covered by the homicide statistics.

The cost of dealing with fires

The Productivity Commission calculated the cost of fire services nationally in 2011–12 to be $3.4b (SCRGSP 2013). Mayhew (2003) estimated that 25 percent of this figure could reasonably be considered to reflect the proportion allocated to dealing with incidents of arson. Applying this in 2011, the cost of fire services associated with arson amounted to $856m.

An estimate of the cost of ambulance services is also included in the total cost of arson. The Productivity Commission (2013) found that ambulance services cost approximately $2.4b in 2011–12. Using Mayhew’s (2003b) attribution of five percent allocated to dealing with arson incidents, the total comes to approximately $123m.

The value of volunteer time

Volunteerism has a long history in Australia and is particularly strong within the emergency services sector. Productivity Commission figures reflect this with 219,765 individuals volunteering in some capacity within the fire services in 2010–11 (SCRGSP 2013). However, it is very difficult to assign a dollar value to this figure as it does not reflect the amount of time individuals have spent volunteering. In addition, many volunteers derive non-economic benefits from volunteering, potentially resulting in a cost-neutral or even negative economic outcome of volunteer time.

Mayhew (2003b) estimated the cost of volunteering by calculating the equivalent per hour if the individual was a paid employee of the fire service. Of course, this fails to include the non-economic benefits that might be present. Mayhew’s (2003b) figure was based on data received from the Country Fire Authority of Victoria and inflated to reflect a national estimate. While the ABS published the number of hours spent volunteering in 2006, there is no figure specific to fire services. In the absence of more detailed information, Mayhew’s estimate, inflated to current values for the cost of volunteers attributable to dealing with arson incidents in 2011–12 is $319m.

Total costs

The total cost of arson in Australia for 2011 was $2.3b, of which the largest component was attributable to property loss ($971m; see Table 25).

Table 25 Summary of arson costs, 2011
Category Total cost ($m)
Best estimate of loss 971.1
Fire services 855.8
Ambulance services 123.2
Volunteer services 319.3
Total 2,269.4