Public Safety Education & The Residential Occupancy Fire

During my first year as the public education officer for the Beaufort, SC, Fire Department, I diligently and enthusiastically set up a fire prevention program for all of our elementary schools. After all, children are twice as likely to die in a house...


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During my first year as the public education officer for the Beaufort, SC, Fire Department, I diligently and enthusiastically set up a fire prevention program for all of our elementary schools. After all, children are twice as likely to die in a house fire than adults, so it would only make sense that this is the age group to target.

I stepped into my first classroom, fire hats and coloring books in hand, excited to save lives. I stood before the class, staring at the wide-eyed children, all with smiles from ear to ear. After all, I am a firefighter, so how can I lose? I have a shiny badge, I drive a big red fire truck and every book they have ever read depicts firefighters rescuing everything from babies to family pets.

I was sure to cover all the bases: "Stop, drop and roll," "When there is a fire inside, don't hide, stay low and go, and go outside," and "Get out and stay out!" I showed videos and then talked about smoke detectors, feeling doors for heat and selecting meeting places. For my grand finale, I fired off numerous questions such as, "What do you do if…?" and the entire class responded in unison with the energized rhythmic replies we had all rehearsed, repeating verbatim the instructions that I had provided. I handed out the fire hats and coloring books, and I left filled with confidence. Surely, I had made a difference and a lasting impression. This job would be a snap!

It wasn't until a year later, and after receiving an interactive mobile fire safety education house as a new tool to our instructional arsenal, that I realized my public education tactics to date, while entertaining, had been minimally effective. Those same children, a year older and wiser, bounded into our safety house; they all had the same wide eyes and the ear-to-ear smiles because, after all, I was still a firefighter. Sharing their enthusiasm, I asked the usual first question, "What do you do if your clothes catch fire?" They all shot back, "Stop, drop and roll!" Building on their accomplishment, and my confidence, I then asked what actions they would take if there was ever a fire in their home, and they replied, "Stop, drop and roll!" When I then sarcastically asked, "Well, then, what would you do if your car was on fire?" I received the same reply, "Stop, drop and roll!" It was apparent now; something was awry in the educational process. The children were repeating, as children do, but they were not learning, and I was not educating.

The U.S. fire service has always been involved in some fashion with fire prevention, going back to the fire safety messages Benjamin Franklin printed in his newspaper under one of his many pseudonyms. One of his more famous read, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," referring to the carrying of smoldering embers through flammable homes. However, it wasn't until the 1970s and the publishing of the America Burning report that fire prevention became a central focus of the fire service, and brought awareness to the American public.

It would appear on the surface that we have been successful in our fire prevention endeavors. According to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports, overall fires dropped from a high of over 3.2 million in 1977 to just over 1.6 million in 2006, a reduction of about 50%, a goal of the America Burning report committee. Fire deaths have also declined from a high of 7,710 in 1978 to 3,245 in 2006, over a 50% reduction. These numbers are promising, and they prove that fire prevention really does work, and show where we as a fire service should be focusing our attention and efforts to accomplish the true spirit of our core values — saving lives and protecting property from fire. However, let's look more closely at these numbers, specifically the most recent years, and what these numbers are whispering to us.

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