Is It Time to Start Fighting Fire With Fire?

  A debate buzzing around the fire prevention community concerns the use of live fire during fire safety training for children. There are two camps: one that argues live fire can be used effectively and those who argue it is inappropriate. While the...


  A debate buzzing around the fire prevention community concerns the use of live fire during fire safety training for children. There are two camps: one that argues live fire can be used effectively and those who argue it is inappropriate. While the arguments rage back and forth, what is...


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A debate buzzing around the fire prevention community concerns the use of live fire during fire safety training for children. There are two camps: one that argues live fire can be used effectively and those who argue it is inappropriate. While the arguments rage back and forth, what is important is that we are having this discussion.

I have long contended we in the fire service must rethink — in fact, completely overhaul — our approach to fire safety education and training. The sharp decline in fires and fire deaths that we experienced in the 1970s has leveled off and in fact has started to increase in some categories. I theorize that one cause may be an evolution in the ways children learn and how they perceive, evaluate and prioritize risks and threats — but the fire service has not adjusted its prevention programs accordingly to these changes. Instead, we continue to approach fire safety the same way we did three decades ago.

For the record, I do not support the use of live fire in the education of children; however, I do support this debate 100%. As Worcester, MA, Deputy Fire Chief John Sullivan taught me during a Firehouse Expo presentation about lessons learned from the cold-storage warehouse fire in which six of his firefighters died: "That which goes unchallenged goes unchanged." I believe we must be open minded enough to try and find ways to improve.

I have been in the fire service for more than 14 years. I have worked in fire prevention for much of that time and I have attended a great deal of training in prevention theory and practice; however, my degree is in fire science, not education or psychology, so I am the first to say that I am no expert in this area and do not pretend to be. I only know what national statistics and experts in the field are reporting and what I see in my own community that supports those findings. Whether good or bad, you can't deny statistics supported by solid numbers.

So let's look at those numbers and statistics.

With the decrease of a solid middle class, an increased need for double-income families and an increase in single-parent homes, the "latchkey" child is more prevalent than ever. Frances Alston of the New York City Child Study Center cites a U.S. Census report in an article on education.com indicating that one third of all U.S. children between the ages of 5 and 13 are home alone at some time during the week — 15% are home alone before school, 76% after school and 9% in the evenings. Increasing numbers of children being left home alone is an obvious concern for the fire service.

Now consider National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) statistics indicating that cooking-fire injuries start to increase at age 10 and that child-set fires increase on weekends and during summer, peaking between 3 and 8 P.M. Could the numbers provided by the U.S. Census support the NFPA statistics and indicate that latchkey children are cooking for themselves and possible siblings after school, on weekends and in the summer?

According to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), curiosity about fire starts at age 3 and 84% of unintentional fires are started by children under 10. Further, 54% of all arson fires are committed by juveniles under 18. According to the San Diego, CA-based Burn Institute, 34% of child fire victims set the fire themselves, 40% of residential fire deaths are a result of child fire play and, nationally, fire play is the leading cause of death in the home. Obviously, children and fire continue to be a problem and while what we are doing today may be effective in some areas, we still have a great deal of room to improve and should be trying to find ways to do so.

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