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A Tale of Saving Lives - You Write the Ending

Fire Prevention Week is about saving lives, the lives of our citizens and the lives of our firefighters who respond and are put at risk.

It's Fire Prevention Week 2009 and Mrs. "Smith" brings her son "Jonny" to the fire station late on Saturday afternoon. The firefighters show them all around the fire station and their fire truck - Engine 1. Jonny gets a plastic fire hat, a coloring book, and a pat on the head. Mrs. Smith and Jonny leave the station with a "warm, fuzzy" feeling about their fire department.

Later that evening while at home Mrs. Smith started cooking dinner and in the middle of doing so she answers the telephone. Because her smoke detector does not have a battery she doesn't realize her stove is on fire until she hears the sound of shattering glass. The fire grows more intense as she instinctively throws water on it. Now, with a fully involved kitchen fire, she runs out of the backdoor. After not being able to locate Jonny outside, she runs back in to look for him.

The neighbors hear the exploding glass and the screams of Mrs. Smith and call 9-1-1. Four minutes later Engine 1 arrives, and upon being told a mother and child were inside, the company officer takes his team in for a search. Three minutes later the house flashes over with the firefighters still inside.

A neighbor hears a child scream for his mommy and sees Jonny hiding in the bushes, the melted fire hat still on his head.

How many opportunities in this story were there to save a life? We all joined the fire service because we wanted to help others and save lives and property from fire; however almost every one of us will go our entire career without making the dramatic 6 o'clock news rescue with flames licking at our heels.

What we seem to not realize is that almost every day we have a chance to save lives, the lives of not only our citizens who we have sworn to protect, but the lives of our own. While fire prevention activities need to be a year-round activity, Fire Prevention Week (the oldest public heath observance on record) is an opportunity for every firefighter and fire department to accomplish what they set out to do when they joined the fire department - save lives. But is your department -- and are you -- prepared to do this?

The first thing you need to do is to determine what the top two causes of fire are in your community along with the statistics to accompany it. Simply saying that "Cooking is the leading cause of fire," is good, but much more effective is saying "Over 65 percent of the fires in our community are caused by cooking and occur between the hours of 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., and 73 percent of those homes did not have a fire extinguisher, and 55 percent did not have a working smoke detector." Adding such statistical information makes the statement more personal, applicable, and professional.

Once you have determined what your top two hazards are you need to look at those problems from a three dimensional aspect: prevention, reaction and survival. What can be done to prevent the fire from occurring, what can be done to react and minimize the damage should one occur, and finally should the fire grow out of control, how to survive it.

While we should educate our citizens on all fire dangers, often times there are only a few minutes of opportunity, so you have to make them count. Quick, targeted messages will have more of an effect when a passing moment presents itself. This information should be provided to all of your personnel, along with training on how to present it, and not just during Fire Prevention Week but all year long.

Now design basic educational programs and messages for those two top hazards that include the three dimensional approach. Design your educational and training presentations around cognitive learning skills; in other words get your audience up and practicing. Students retain 90 percent of what the say while doing! The fire your citizens will have to survive, should one occur, is the exact same chemical science our personnel have to deal with to suppress it. We didn't learn those skills from only lectures and video tapes, did we?

Do not be lazy! During Fire Prevention Week school children will be flocking to the fire stations in droves, but training at this level is survival only after the fire has already occurred. Find a way to get parents involved, or at least get the information home to the parents. Look at your community for possible adult audiences and set a goal for the amount of adults you will talk to this year, particularly communities in which one or both of your top two hazards are occurring the most in.

Here is a simple idea to get the adults and into these targeted communities:

Team up with one of your local businesses for discount coupons for a child's favorite food or activity. When the children come to visit you hand out a home fire inspection sheet, and tell the children that if they bring it back filled out with a parent, they will get a free item. Be creative, but make it a point to find and train adults.

If you have money for fire prevention, purchase items that will further fire prevention, reaction and survival efforts like fire extinguishers and smoke detectors and if your community has multi-story residences, purchase some escape ladders. All it takes is for one house to have such a free item and it will spread throughout the community. Work with your local department stores on stocking these items and possibly offering discounts, so as you promote them, people will know where to go and get them while your presentation is still fresh in their mind and with the discounts available. Use your items as incentives to participate in and complete a fire safety skill, not just to hand out for the "warm fuzzy" feeling.

Would the above story have turned out differently if the firefighters on Engine 1 educated Mrs. Smith on the dangers of cooking (prevention), trained her on the use of a fire extinguisher (react), reminded her to change the battery in her smoke detector (survive), and gave Jonny and Mrs. Smith a fire extinguisher and/or a smoke detector to take home instead of a fire hat and coloring book? By doing these things does it not benefit the firefighters of Engine 1 just as much as Mrs. Smith and her son?

Fire Prevention Week is about saving lives, the lives of our citizens and the lives of our firefighters who respond and are put at risk. Take a serious look at your community and identify what the hazards are, how you can prevent them for occurring and how to train your citizens to react properly to them when they occur, and then to survive it. Not only should those working in fire prevention know this information, but every firefighter who will come in contact with your public...because you never know who Mrs. Smith is, and your life may depend on it!

  • Learn from Lieutnant Byrne Live: Lt. Byrne will be presenting "Taking Public Education to Another Level" at Firehouse Central in Atlanta, Oct. 26 - 30, 2009.


DANIEL BYRNE, a Contributing Editor, is a Lieutenant, EMT-P, with the City of Beaufort, SC, Fire Department and currently serves in the capacity of Fire Marshal, Public Education Officer and Public Information Officer for the City of Beaufort and Town of Port Royal. A 20-year veteran of the emergency services and a National Fire Academy Alumni, he is a veteran of the Desert Shield/Storm war with the U.S. Marine Corps. In 2006 the City of Beaufort Fire Department was awarded the South Carolina "Richard S. Campbell Award" for excellence in public fire safety education. You can reach Daniel by e-mail at