Although no one is immune from the deadly effects of fire, children are one of fire's most unfortunate victims and, thus, demand fire service educators' foremost attention. Throughout the year, fire service professionals reach out into their communities to inform children and adults of fire prevention, detection methods and survival skills. The fire service uses a somewhat basic standardization of instructional curriculum in hopes of providing a convergence of easily understood, comprehendible information that we hope will save lives.
Fire safety educators use cognitive preparedness in an attempt to give the brain information to provide prioritization of thought, including the correct execution sequence of fire survival skills. The trick is to have this information ready for immediate recall years after formal instruction, usually given at the grade-school level, has ended. If our fire prevention lectures are successful, we will have instilled a thought process. This process will result in not only an appropriate cognitive reaction, but the correct physical and behavioral responses.
Although all fires are different, their deadly effects are similar and to some point can be predicted. For a seasoned fire service professional, being able to predict the basic life-threatening nature of a fire is not novel or seen as a challenge. The challenge for the fire service is to cognitively prepare people for something that may or may not happen.
In our lectures, we transpose the life-and-death possibilities of a fire to our audience. Our main focus is to instill cognitive measures to prevent and mitigate those deadly effects. We do get some influences from outside our profession, sometimes good, sometimes not so good. If an audience member has not had a fire, someone they know probably has. Fires are also glorified in the movies and on TV. Media images can be beneficial, but also can be unrealistic, leaving the viewer not knowing the difference between fantasy and reality. Nevertheless, these images keep fire and its deadly effects in people's minds. For a real-life image, one only has to look at the evening news to see a story of a fire victim often due to a lack of working smoke detectors.
Fire safety cognitive preparedness begins with the brain receiving and then storing information. When we are before an audience and begin our fire prevention lecture, we explain the perils of fire and life safety mitigation techniques. Like all information received, our brain takes the information; if it isn't needed immediately, the information is filed away in the subconscious. Once stored in the subconscious brain, the information lies dormant and, hopefully, it will be readily and rapidly available for cognitive recall when it is needed.
The more we can prepare a mental schema for a fire victims' survival, the less likely they may face impedances to rapid cognitive response recall. Impedances like emotions and stressors such as the event itself can be problematic and cloud response judgment. Will the person use the correct judgment to get out and stay out of the house? If recall is inadequate, it can lead to choosing the incorrect execution, such as going back in the house for loved ones. To help a person realize the dangerous situation and make the correct choice, we provide for the recognition of awareness cues.
Elimination of impedances and choosing the correct execution can be accomplished through an enhancement of a person's awareness to the potential threat of fire. Cues of fire danger such as a ringing fire alarm, the smell or visual appearance of smoke provide for what is called situational awareness. Situational awareness is the perception of a person's environmental elements. It involves being aware of what is happening around you. It is an understanding of current event information and given that understanding an assessment of action can be made. Proper recognition and interpretation of those cues also affords a person a chance to respond. It is only through fire prevention efforts that situational cues can be learned and reinforced.
In an emergency situation, the mind goes into a recall mode. It quickly attempts to search for cues of how to process the present situation while simultaneously searching for past experiences of similar events. It should be noted that recall of cognitive information is retrieved at a given rate and no faster and, of course, for any recall to occur the information must have been stored in the brain in the first place. Hence the importance of our fire prevention lectures. Hopefully, recall memorization will spur correct response such as crawling low in smoke or feeling the door before opening. We can never doubt the power of our fire safety lectures. Lectures may seem monotonous to us at times, but if no survival cues and techniques are taught and reinforced, then no past experience can be recalled. That means no stimulus for action and therefore no appropriate response can take place and a life may be lost.
It's Worth Repeating
When the proper cues are taught and recognized, the average person faced with an odious situation will not become panic stricken and incapable of performing elementary tasks to enhance or secure survival in a fire. If no cues can be recognized and no past experiences can be recalled, people can experience what is called cognitive dysfunction. The brain shuts down. This cognitive impairment is called brain freeze.
Brain freeze is not just from sipping an Icee too fast. In an emergency situation, we face a fight, flight (run away) or freeze (stand still) reaction. For immediate cognitive response to provide a more instantaneous reaction, it is imperative that we advance fire safety skills through influential pre-conditioning. This conditioning is achieved through our fire service lectures and demonstrations.
Through our educational programs we can achieve cognitive retention, avoid cognitive dysfunction and accelerate survival skills. We must give consumers knowledge of expected encountered events and a prescribed way in which to handle these events. This is why the fire service should never discount its return year after year restating the same fire prevention message. It is only through redundancy and repetition of information that we can enhance cognitive memory recall, avoid cognitive impairment and save lives.
TRACY KILMER has been the fire official and fire sub-code official in the Borough of Palmyra, NJ, for 14 years, conducting fire inspections and investigations and designing and implementing fire safety programs for the public and private sectors. She also is the borough's construction official and building inspector and deputy coordinator of its Office of Emergency Management. Kilmer holds a Certified Fire Investigator (CFI) certification from the Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI) and New Jersey Division of Fire Safety certifications as a Fire Official, Firefighter I, Hazmat On-Scene Commander, Incident Management System Level I and Instructor Level II. She also holds New Jersey Department of Community Affairs licenses as a Construction Official, High Rise/Hazardous (HHS) Fire Inspector, Sub Code Official-Fire Protection, Housing Code Official/Inspector and Building Residential and Small Commercial (RCS). Kilmer served for 10 years as a structural firefighter and is a past instructor at the Burlington County Fire Academy. She holds an associate's degree in law enforcement.