We know that fire and smoke damage more than just people’s possessions. They destroy memories, wreak financial havoc, and cause emotional and physiological stress — and the water we use to extinguish the flames only adds to the destruction. So what’s the bottom line? The safest, most efficient way to fight fire and prevent destruction is to keep fires from happening in the first place.
And what is fire prevention? The dictionary defines prevention as action taken to keep something from happening. Spending a half hour in an elementary classroom, talking to the rotary club, visiting a senior citizen group, or addressing high school seniors who are heading off to college — or any other audience you can get yourself in front of — could be the difference between the fire that destroys lives, or the one that doesn’t happen. And your personal efforts to convince your neighbors to install and test smoke alarms, and to practice home fire-escape plans, could be the only difference between a fire death and a happy ending.
I have heard from fire departments time and time again that they wish they could do more, but they don’t have the resources or people to staff these events. How can smaller departments or those with limited budgets get the message out? There are many options that are low-cost and require no more than one or two firefighters to staff them:
- Kitchen display for cooking fire safety: Mistakes in the kitchen are the leading cause of fires nationwide. This is a key issue in any community. Ask a local appliance dealer if they have any stove tops they’ve used for displays and plan to get rid of. Check with people who are upgrading to new appliances; often they junk the old ones. You can use the whole appliance or just the stovetop on a table. Get a pan, a lid and a pot holder and you’ll have an interactive display. I’m not a big fan of starting a fire to extinguish in front of people unless you’re set up with safety features for that specific action, but you can talk through how to handle a fire in a pan and stress the importance of having a lid nearby.
- Fire extinguisher training: Electronic simulators help with fire extinguisher training, but they’re expensive. If you don’t have access to one of those, you can put up an information booth that includes cutaway diagrams and information on how to use extinguishers. Have different types of fire extinguishers on hand so people can learn what they feel like. You can help people demonstrate the steps of using an extinguisher without starting a fire or releasing product.
- Artifacts: Have you been to a house fire recently where you found artifacts that clearly show the thermal layers? Sooty smoke alarms with no batteries? A burned door with charring and heavy soot at the top and less damage at the bottom? There are safety messages you can develop based on each of these artifacts. Messages about the charred door include keeping bedroom doors closed at night, the engineering of the door, why you need smoke alarms inside and outside of bedrooms, why you should stay low and crawl, using secondary exits, etc.
- Video production contest: Challenge teens in your area to produce a 30-second TV public service announcement on one of a list of fire safety topics you provide. Develop rules, post them online, and publicize the event in your high school(s) and on local media. Solicit prizes from local businesses — music, electronics and movies are popular. The Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety holds a contest annually and receives some amazing entries from kids who are both creative and technologically adept. Find example rules and forms at www.dps.state.mn.us/ots. Click “Teen Drivers” to find the PSA challenge information.
- Spin wheel/prize wheel: For some reason, people love to spin these things. Rental places have prize wheels available. Load your wheel with questions about fire safety, fire prevention…even about your city and your fire department. The questions stimulate discussion among the people who spin and those who are standing in line awaiting their turn. If you have trinkets with your department logo, they can be given to those who answer questions correctly, but a good round of applause may suffice.
- Fire safety game show: There are many different game-show formats out there. Tap into the creative members of your department to think up some fire-safety activities that can be done in a game show format. For example, use “Minute to Win It,” by having people test smoke alarms, find two ways out of various rooms on a diagram, give information to a 911 dispatcher, etc. You can create a “Jeopardy” game board with safety questions, or think up fire-safety slogans and play “Wheel of Fortune.”
- Laptops with online challenge games: The Minnesota State Fire Marshal Division has released online fire safety challenge games that can be played by children and adults. Although the games were written in Minnesota, they have been played throughout the country, and even around the world. Set up a laptop or computer station at your next event and help your residents learn more about residential fire sprinklers, general fire safety, arson awareness or summer fire safety. All you would need is a computer or two with internet connection and someone that can reset the games and answer questions.
- Ask the Firefighter/The Doctor is IN: Think about Lucy’s advice booth in Charles Schultz’s iconic “Peanuts” comic strip. It may seem silly, but there is potential in the idea of having a Lucy “Doctor is IN” set-up with knowledgeable people on your department willing to field general questions. Set the background up with some commonly asked questions that may inspire the audience to ask, “How do I know when to replace my smoke alarms?” A few questions printed up and put on the wall, a sign that says, “The Fire Marshal (Fire Chief, Firefighter) is IN” and a few knowledgeable staff people are all you need.
If you have events that are department sponsored, and all of your resources are tied up in making sure that the event is a success, you still have options. You can set up static displays along heavily travelled routes to get event participants talking. If there are places where people have to stand in line to get pancakes, ride on trucks, or watch a demonstration, set up displays on their path. Talk about a captive audience! Some advertisers would die to have a captive audience standing in front of their product for seconds or minutes. Capitalize on your opportunity with:
- Extinguisher and smoke alarm cutaways: Human nature makes people want to know how things work. Set up a display with diagrams, pictures or actual extinguishers and alarms. Label the elements of smoke alarms and fire extinguishers in words that are easy to understand. Explain the various types of smoke alarms and where they should be located throughout the house. Post the answers to commonly asked questions about smoke alarms and fire extinguishers — When do they need to be replaced? How do you dispose of old ones? How often do you need to test alarms? Which type of extinguisher works best for what?
- Posters with your NFIRS data: Provide information on your community’s most common types of fire calls and ways to avoid those situations. If you don’t have your own data, you can use the statewide or national data. Make flyers available with tips on how to avoid these calls.
Take full advantage of any opportunity you have to get in front of your community. Don’t use budget and resource limitations as an excuse. All you need is a little ingenuity and some set-up time and you’ll be effectively preventing fires and educating your community without needing extra resources or spending large amounts of money.
BECKI WHITE is a deputy state fire marshal and fire safety educator with the Minnesota State Fire Marshal Division. You can reach Becki by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.