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The first step in educating this group is to develop a rapport with them. I often go to the movies and watch a kids movie such as "Cars," or watch the latest "SpongeBob SquarePants" cartoon. I begin by talking about the movie or acting out a scene in the show to get things going. Once they see you are versed in "SpongeBob" or the latest box-office hit, they now see you on their level, and you have a common ground with them that they can identify with and they will instantly bond with you. This also brings some of those quiet, apprehensive children out from the corners and into your program. I have also purchased stuffed-animal characters from these shows and will show them while asking the children questions like; "Who has seen this movie or show," and "What was you favorite part or favorite character?"
We start off early with these children, and we try to reach these students at the day-care level, before elementary school, with a program we call "1st Impressions -- Lasting Impressions." It is a four-day program, 30 minutes per day, designed to introduce firefighters to the children through fun interaction and playing games to develop their skills such as "Stop-Drop-Roll," and finishing with the "Friendly Firefighter," where they can see a real firefighter get dressed up step-by-step in bunker gear and touch the equipment.
We also introduce smoke detectors where the children will recite the following in cadence with the detector; (beep) "GET," (beep) "OUT-OF," (beep) "THE-HOUSE," as we get up and walk to the door, feel it for heat and then go to the window. We talk about "What's hot, what's not," in their house by showing items such as irons and curling irons, and "Tools and Toys," for matches and lighter safety. We send flyers home each day to inform parents that the fire department was at the school or day-care center talking to their children, what we talked about and what the parent should do to continue that education at home. By the time the children enter elementary school, when a firefighter walks into the classroom, we are familiar to them and they are excited to see us, it's like seeing an old friend, and the student is now ready to learn.
With the elementary school children, again it's not just lecture, we get them up and get them training. While we use our safety house for presenting our fire safety material to them, an effective presentation can be done anywhere with creativity. For example, during our presentations, we sound a smoke detector and get the class up on their feet, feel a door for heat and then go to a window. We discuss not only what to do if the door is hot, but what to do if it is cold (open the door slowly and sniff, if you see or smell smoke, shut the door and go to the window). We have them crawl beneath the smoke, such as training smoke or a blanket, and we have them look out the window and find a suitable meeting place. A firefighter is also outside the window looking in at the children making funny faces to demonstrate that firefighters can readily see them through windows.
We throw a stuffed animal out of the window at the firefighter to demonstrate what they should do if they are on a second floor to signal for help. Doing this demonstration is a big hit and the children think it is hilarious. Of all the things we discuss, the children remember "throwing a stuffed animal at a firefighter" first, and with the most enthusiasm. More importantly, it drives home the point of going to a window for help if they cannot go out another way and how to summon help.
We also combine this demonstration with having one of the children hide in a closet or under a table to demonstrate that if they hide, they cannot be seen by the firefighter at the window and firefighters can't help them. Often, we will leave the teacher or student behind, and when at the meeting place doing a head count, the children will shout that someone is missing, and we use this to emphasize not going back inside and the importance for everyone to meet at the meeting place. The firefighter then goes back inside to "rescue" the individual left behind to the applause of the children. I assign the students homework, which the teachers are encouraged to reinforce. The first assignment is to make sure they have a working smoke detector outside their bedroom; the second assignment is to find their family meeting place.
The main focus with this program is to have them demonstrate, not just repeat. While rhymes, catchy phrases and banners serve a valuable purpose, skills are retained more effectively when reinforced with action. Teachers are also encouraged to check the students "homework" the next day.
My next column will address how older children and adults can be educated about fire safety.