Fire Departments Discover "Dragons"

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The Mobile, AL, Fire-Rescue Department has a new firefighter on its team. He's short, green and his breath is a fire hazard. "Dusty the Spectacular Smoke Smeller" Dragon is Fire Educator Kent Landsberg's newest lifesaving tool. Together, Dusty and Firefighter Kent teach children the dangers of fire and make the safety information fun and easy to remember.

In his years of teaching fire safety to children, Landsberg has learned an important fact: children aren't interested in listening to an adult talk. But let a dragon puppet talk, and every eye in the room is glued to him. "If I tell them to get down and crawl, they ask why," said Landsberg. "If Dusty tells them to get down and crawl, they do."

Presentations last approximately 30 minutes and are divided into four parts. It begins with the teacher reading a short book on fire safety, then showing the video "Be Cool about Fire Safety" from Allstate Insurance. Next, the teacher re-reads the story while Landsberg acts it out with costumed props such as wigs, glasses, hats, a teddy bear and smoke alarm. Finally, Dusty the Dragon performs his six-minute show, then the students answer questions on what they learned.

One of the important lessons in Dusty's performance is smoke alarm sound recognition. Dusty tells the children when they hear that sound to get down low, crawl outside and stay outside. Landsberg explained that the only fire safety message many children know is "Stop, Drop and Roll." Without knowing they should leave the house, many children are placed in danger when a fire occurs. In the performance, Dusty shares five fire-survival skills in a non-threatening manner using repetition in sing-a-long songs: have a working fire alarm, get down low and crawl under the smoke, stay outside and have a designated meeting area. Dusty also explains why firefighters may look a little scary. "The firefighters wear helmets, boots, coats and masks for their protection against smoke and flame," says the dragon.

"The minute Dusty appears, children zoom in and absorb every detail of the fire safety message," said Landsberg. "They often even start to repeat the song and some children actually start to crawl on the floor when the song tells them to crawl low under smoke."

Landsberg began with the Mobile Fire-Rescue Department nearly 30 years ago, so fire safety is nothing new to him. Now as the department's life and fire safety educator, he works to educate the public on fire safety. He's done it with a Dalmatian, a cockatoo and now with Dusty, enchanting children with songs and fire safety tips. He's also paired it with the children's book No Dragons for Tea by Jean Pendziwol and Martine Gourbault, which he calls the best new fire survival training tool for fire educators. Landsberg worked to place a copy of the book in every public- and private-school library as well as all Mobile municipal libraries. With books in the Mobile County School System, the largest in Alabama, 40,000 children are exposed to this whimsical book on fire safety. No Dragons for Tea was awarded the Teachers' Choice Award in 2001 for the International Reading Association and in 1999 was named an Outstanding Book by the Parent Council.

"All the teachers just love the wonderful rhyming verses and beautifully illustrated pictures that allow a friendly dragon to teach fire survival skills without scaring the children," said Landsberg.

Landsberg averages one performance a day to 100 kids. Last year, he educated 16,000 Mobile-area children in some 300 performances. He targets kids from 3 years old to the third grade. He also shows the same material to senior citizen groups, asking if they want to see what the children are learning. And, as Landsberg said, the message is the same regardless of the audience.

Knowing his audience is an important tactic Landsberg has learned over his many performances. With preschoolers, he sits farther away from the children, who are often frightened by the puppet. For children under five, he allows them to see him put his hand inside Dusty so they will understand he is "make believe." And with the first to third graders, Landsberg makes sure to have the puppet already on so the kids can pretend the dragon is real. Everyone loves the big finish when Dusty blows actual smoke.

From the concept of the smoke-smelling dragon puppet to Dusty's first performance was a fast four months, with Landsberg working with Steve Axtell, president and creative director of Axtell Expressions in Ventura, CA. Landsberg developed the script, then he and Axtell e-mailed back and forth with changes. When the two finally agreed on the script, a CD was produced of Dusty speaking. And no special skills are needed to integrate Dusty into a department's fire safety education program. It may look like a highly skilled ventriloquist act, but the CD leaves space for the fire educator to speak. All that's necessary is learning a few easy lines and gestures, such as holding up a smoke detector for the children to see.

Dusty is now available internationally through Axtell, which offers the puppet and CD at cost to fire departments. "It's just about the cheapest fire safety education program available," said Landsberg. The entire package with the dragon, CD and smoke is priced under $500."

"Axtell Expressions has always been dedicated to the entertainment, education and protection of kids," said Axtell. "Our puppet characters are an amazing way of connecting with them - they are so incredibly effective. We create programs and characters for educators and safety instructors as part of our regular day to day work in our studio and are constantly expanding our creative, magical product line for performers and educators." Axtell Expressions' product line is available at www.axtell.com.

So far, departments in Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin have added Dusty to their teams. Landsberg and Axtell are continuously working on educational concepts. For more information, contact Landsberg at LSUE321@aol.com.

GRETA SHARP is an Alabama-based freelance writer specializing in fire-rescue service topics.

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