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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.
Since 1999, while nationally overall fires continue to decline, overall fires in residential occupancies are increasing. Fires in one- and two-family dwellings continue to comprise over half of these fires. This would indicate that while fire prevention has had an effect across the board, it has had the most impact in non-residential occupancies where the fire service has had the most control through code enforcement, modern building designs and fire-suppression systems. Yet, in the residential setting, in the private home where code enforcement has no jurisdiction once the home is constructed and the family moves in, and where according to the NFPA over 78% of all fires (up from 74% in 1999) and 80% of all fire deaths occurred in 2006, we haven't been as effective. Providing true education and training to the everyday citizen, not relying on fire codes, is the key to reducing these numbers and placing our residential homes on the same steady decline as the other fire statistics. We need to start training our citizens to prevent and survive a fire just like we teach our people to suppress them. If we can do this, we can then truly affect the overall fire problem in the U.S. and start living our core values.
We also need to choose our target audience appropriately in order to have an effective "fire prevention" program. Fire safety and children go together like popcorn and butter, and every year during fire prevention time, we are inundated with requests by elementary schools for fire station tours and fire safety education, and we list these elementary school audiences in our "fire prevention" column as part of our end-of-year reports. It looks impressive, and while this is an important audience to educate, we also need to keep this age group in proper perspective to have a true and effective "fire prevention" program.
Fire safety education and training at the elementary school level is geared toward actions children should take once a fire has already started (with the exception of matches and lighters), such as staying low, feeling doors for heat and using windows as exits. Important lessons indeed! But wouldn't this type of training be better classified as "fire survival" education rather than "fire prevention" education? Can elementary school children really prevent fires from cooking and the improper storing of flammable liquids? Would a group of second-graders grasp the concept of an overloaded outlet or how to prevent the other leading causes of fire? Do they have that type of influence within their sphere to effect such changes in their home?
Do not allow your department to become hyper-focused on one particular easy-to-reach group and build a false sense of security on your fire prevention program based on numbers alone. Look at what those numbers are, who you are talking to and how you are carrying out your program. Are you including all age groups? Are you providing training by having people demonstrate the skills they need to do or is it just videos and engine displays? Is it an "education" program, a training program or an "awareness" program? Yes, children are important and they must be included in our outreach programs, but to conduct effective "fire prevention" programs, we must solicit parent involvement and reach out to them as well, along with all adults. Not only do parents and other adults have the greatest influence on preventing fires in their homes, they are also the same people who will defeat our noble efforts in educating children.
I have found that when teaching a group of children fire safety for the first time, almost all identify the smoke detector correctly and will state that when it activates it means there is a fire. This gives every indication that someone in their life has talked to them about smoke detectors. Yet, when asked what they should do, most will answer that they would get their mom or dad. When further prompted as to what comes next, they explain that their mom or dad will wave a newspaper in front of the detector to get it to stop beeping. So now what happens at 2 A.M. when a real fire is roaring in the kitchen and the child hears that smoke detector? Once again, parents, like firefighters, are doing a lot of talking to their children, but not a lot of doing.
Like everything in a child's life, they hear adults say one thing, yet practice another. This is why educating and training the parents and adults needs to be synonymous with educating and training the children. You cannot effectively educate and train one without the other. We must reach parents and recruit them to continue our messages at home. Parents need to know what messages and lessons we are teaching the children and understand that they may be inadvertently defeating our efforts by encouraging poor actions in the home. Just as important, they also need to know what they can do to prevent these fires from starting in the first place.
As a fire service we just need to stop talking, showing and playing, and start doing and educating. We need to understand the differences and relationships between fire safety awareness, fire safety education and fire safety training, and we need to correctly categorize the audience we are talking to in order to gauge and affect our "fire prevention" efforts. Our fire safety efforts should go beyond open houses, engine displays, games, posters, videos and banners, and on to involving programs which will require the audience to perform and demonstrate the skills they will need to execute in order to prevent a fire from occurring, or to survive the fire when it erupts.
There are thousands of great and effective public education programs out there in the U.S., but the one problem we seem to have in this professional area is a means in which to disseminate and share the ideas and programs that work. Most of our fire service periodicals involve fire suppression, and what to do once a fire has been reported. There is very little information on programs that will help us effectively prevent them.
In my next column, I will share with you some of the programs we have successfully used at the Beaufort Fire Department, and assist you in creating or adding to the programs for your department to get the most bang for your buck in your educational efforts. If we start to share ideas and lessons learned, just like we do with our suppression efforts, we can begin to stem the tide of battle on our most hallowed of ground, the battle we are currently losing — the battle of saving lives and property in the residential occupancy — and start winning the war to protect the fire service's core values.
DANIEL BYRNE is a lieutenant and the fire marshal for the Beaufort, SC, Fire Department, where he has served the past 10 years. A 20-year veteran of the emergency services, he is a National Fire Academy alumnus and a volunteer paramedic with Beaufort County EMS. A U.S. Marine veteran of the Desert Shield/Storm War, he is a technical sergeant with the Georgia Air National Guard, serving in the Fire Protection Division airport crash crew. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.