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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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.