An All-Year Approach

All fire departments are familiar with Fire Safety Month, but fire safety shouldn't end there. Fire departments must provide children's fire safety education all year long in order to get the fire safety message out. Fire risks to children don't occur only in October, so why should our programs focus on fire risks only during this one month? Children learn through what they see and what they are exposed to. Greater exposure to our life-saving messages means that children have a greater chance of retaining what they learn if it is taught with a greater frequency.

The Neshannock Township, PA, Fire Department found this out. Like many departments, it provided most of its children's fire safety education in the fall, with limited programs throughout the rest of the year. It was noticed during the annual programs that the children often forgot basic fire safety information such as fire escape plans and fire prevention skills. The department recognized this and decided to take a new approach, a year-long fire safety program. By creating a partnership with the Neshannock Township School District, the fire department was able to adopt a fire safety curriculum that was approved by the district and taught throughout the school year.

The first step in implementing a year-long fire safety program was to create a curriculum to ensure that participants received the same lessons and safety messages from year to year. A partnership with the school district's Memorial Health Services was organized, with a panel made up of the fire company's fire safety coordinator, the school health director, teachers and school administrators. It was decided to base the program on the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) "Learn Not to Burn" Fire Safety Curriculum, designed to teach age-appropriate fire safety skills to children. The curriculum was tailored to suit the needs of the children and our community's risks. The "Fire Safe Kids" program was introduced as a year-round fire safety curriculum that integrates fire safety into daily classroom activities. The children learn fire safety behaviors that are grade appropriate. Each lesson is self-building from the previous year's program, letting the children build newfound knowledge on past lessons and practices.

"Fire Safe Kids" far exceeds the Pennsylvania State Academic Standards for Health, Safety & Physical Education. This was accomplished by teaching fire safety through an academic curriculum. Each lesson includes behavioral objectives based on "Learn Not to Burn" and that must be met by the students. Each lesson is accompanied by worksheets that reinforce the safety points being taught.

One of the most beneficial aspects of the "Learn Not to Burn" curriculum and why it was integrated into our program is that it uses motor skills and subjects such as reading, writing and arithmetic. These skills are used and enhanced during the fire safety lessons by including them in classroom activities. The program involves home activities that can be done as a family and also lets teachers assign homework that teaches an academic lesson with a fire safety message included. This way, children receive their academic education while including activities that teach them to spot hazards in their homes and deliver the fire safety message to the entire family.

During October, Fire Safety Month, the fire department provides fun activities for the children, using fire safety props that provide hands-on activities to reinforce lessons learned in the classroom. Children in pre-school through first grade are taught fire safety lessons using "Sparky," the department's fire safety education robot. The robot was purchased from Robotronics using fire prevention grants. The children are shown age-appropriate cartoons purchased from the NPFA and each lesson is reinforced using "Sparky" to teach the life saving skills, such as "Stop, Drop and Roll," stay away from things that get hot, match and lighter safety, and cool a burn. They are also taught basic fire escape plans and the students then demonstrate their skills using a "Stop, Drop and Roll" mat. A firefighter dons full personal protective equipment (PPE) in front of the young children to teach them not to be afraid of a firefighter. The children thoroughly enjoy getting the chance to feel the heavy coat, listen to a firefighter talk through self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and knock on his helmet to see how hard it is. They also have their picture taken with the firefighter and a fire truck. Each child receives a plastic fire helmet and badge as well as a coloring book and stickers.

Older students practice reporting fires, placing smoke detectors and making home fire escape plans. Second-graders learn about the importance of fire escape plans and are taught E.D.I.T.H. (Exit Drills in the Home) using NFPA videos. They are given an assignment to draw fire escape plans and note locations of smoke detectors in their homes. If any students note that they don't have smoke detectors, the fire department installs them in the students' homes free of charge. Some students also find that their homes' smoke detectors have dead batteries and replace them during their inspections. The children also practice calling 911 on a closed-circuit telephone system designed for this use. Using a phone in a classroom, the children dial 911. A firefighter in another classroom answers the call as a dispatcher would, asking the caller for standard information such as name, address and the type of emergency. This lets the children experience what calling 911 in a real emergency may be like. It also lets the firefighters and teachers reinforce why knowing your address is so important. It is found that many of the children at this age level do not know their address.

Third- and fourth-graders are taught fire prevention by performing home-hazard inspections. Fire safety props such as Modeltech's "Hazard House" are used to teach home hazards that could cause fire or injury. Using the props lets the children place smoke detectors and remove hazards in the home simulator. All of the lessons include small homework assignments that the students must bring back to school for review. They include fire safety checklists that check for smoke detector placement and operation, home heating hazards, electrical hazards, kitchen fire safety, and proper storage of matches, lighters and flammables.

The fifth-grade class is taken on a field trip to the fire station. This is presented as a reward for the hard work that the children have done throughout the years in previous fire safety lessons. At the fire station, the children are shown videos of simulated fires in the home. Firefighters explain why and how the fire grows, reinforce lessons learned, review fire escape plans and fire home inspections. At the end of the presentation, the children are shown various fire apparatus and equipment used in emergency response. The fifth-graders also are visited through the winter to be taught cold-weather safety, home preparation for winter storms and ice safety.

One lesson we were excited to introduce was the Fire Safe Kids "Reading Buddies" program. "Reading Buddies" lets sixth-graders write and edit their own fire safety stories based on lessons they have learned. The stories are then shared with kindergarten through second-grade classes on a designated Reading Day. Having students write their own fire safety stories lets teachers and the fire department evaluate how much the students have learned and retained from past years' lessons. The program can then be adjusted to meet any shortcomings in skills not retained. The children write rough drafts that are checked by teachers for grammar, spelling and punctuation. The fire department then reviews each story for the accuracy of the fire safety message. Winners are chosen from each class and given gift cards to local merchants and a photo placed in the local newspaper.

Each year, the program is evaluated by selected teachers and parents to evaluate the program's delivery and content. All in all, minor changes have been made and the department and school have received much positive feedback from parents and the community. A current evaluation of our fire safety programs has shown that most of our goals set for the program have not only been met, but far exceeded its expectations. The program currently reaches over 1,700 participants and grows by 10% every year. Success has also been measured by the significant decrease in the number of fires every year involving children. There have also been several occasions when children who have gone through the programs have prevented fires from occurring.

The success of the program can be attributed to many factors. The partnership with the school district let the program be adopted as part of the school curriculum. The support of the teachers and their help in delivering the program and teaching fire safety in their lessons has also been a great success. The students now retain most all the information and skills taught to them. Many resources are available to the fire service. For example, the NFPA offers many age-appropriate educational materials that can be used alone or in conjunction with the "Learn Not to Burn" curriculum. If your department wants to start a year-round fire safety program or enhance its current program, it's just a matter of creating partnerships and using the right resources.

DAVID J. CONGINI is 15-year member and captain of the Neshannock Township, PA, Fire Department. He holds an associate's degree in fire science and administration and has been the fire safety education coordinator and emergency management coordinator for Neshannock Township since 2001.