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Building a Solid Structure Requires a Solid Foundation

True public education is something that requires an understanding of the difference between awareness, information, and education.

Providing public fire and life safety education is not simply a matter of showing up with an assortment of toys and leaflets and calling it "education." True public education is something that requires an understanding of the difference between awareness, information, and education. Once these areas of knowledge are attained, public education now becomes much more like a construction project. When building a sturdy house, it takes time and careful consideration to make it last a lifetime.

Location, Location, Location...
We hear this all the time in regard to real estate, whether we are talking about building or buying an existing home. In regard to public fire and life safety education, this is just as important. Being prepared for any opportunity is a must. Some events may provide an opportunity for basic awareness, maybe to distribute some information, and other events give us the chance for real education. What's the difference you ask? Let's put the hammer to the nail:

Awareness: Becoming aware or more cognizant of the problem or situation. (For example: a bumper sticker that says "Fire destroys lives and property.")

Information: Provides information that may or may not expect a behavior change, but gives a call to action. (For example: a billboard that says "Learn not to Burn ... call 1-800-444-LNTB.)

Education: Expects a behavioral/attitude change that is measurable. (For example: a pre-test score of 72 percent and a post-test score of 94 percent denotes a 22 percent knowledge gain.)

Now that we have that straight, we can proceed with deciding what type of opportunity we have. This will help us determine what tools we need for the job. Is this the right environment for a safe escape trailer? The fire sprinkler trailer? How about a fire extinguisher demonstration unit? What about a mock bedroom or a dry erase board with an escape drill floor plan? Maybe it will only be a brochure hand out? You get the idea. But as with a house, we need that solid foundation of understanding before we begin construction.

We now know what we have to work with as far as the environment, but what about the safety message? Is there a specific problem that we must address? Have there been a rash of careless smoking fires? Maybe it's been candle fires recently.

It really doesn't matter what the problem is, what matters is that our response addresses the issue and the knowledge we give is clear, correct, and consistent. This, as with the cornerstones of a building, will lend integrity and strength to the project. A little research goes a long way to keep us from getting caught in the rut and spinning our wheels.

Is Pre-Fab Better Than Stick-Built?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. What will determine this for you may be budget; it may be that the problem you are trying to solve is very localized or unique, or it may be a time issue. There are many fabulous pre-packaged brochures and curricula out there, and if they fit your needs then you should find the resources to purchase them.

If you can research and take a little information from many places to create your own message to better reach the public, then that's the way to go. This is your call, but remember, measure twice, cut once.

Sidewalk Appeal
Any time we are attempting to reach the public, we must draw them to us. If we have built a beautiful house, but hide it behind an atrocious landscape, it just won't bring in the customer. It's the same with our fire safety outreach.

An approachable smile is a great start, but have you tried a Sparky costume to attract the little people? How about temporary Smoky Bear tattoos? These will both give you that "c'mon and see us" necessary to share a minute or two with the passerby.

The safe escape house is another excellent example of this, if, you invest those moments together by asking questions and delivering the appropriate fire safety message. This is your chance to drive that nail in, or help the customer understand that we all have a fire safety problem, but it's repairable with a little of our expertise.

But I'm No Carpenter...
There are many jobs we can do if a hammer just isn't our tool. Some are good at talking to the public, some are good at researching, some are good at set-up and tear-down of the display, while others may have the contacts to offer discounted smoke alarms and fire extinguishers.

The point is, when is the last time a person built a house by themselves, or better yet, without a variety of tools? To make the most of an opportunity, we first must develop our plan using all available resources. It's the only way we can come out "on the level"!

Don't forget that there are many good "trades people" in the fire service willing to "snap a line" for you. Also the state fire associations want to help your educational projects become the lasting structures they should be. Please look for information on the internet, through your state associations, national organizations and your state fire marshal's office. They know where all the trade schools are taking place and when. Give me a call if you would like (651-315-3448), I may not be a "master carpenter", but I have a knack for finding the right tools for the job, and I'd be happy to help you break ground and get your project underway!

DANIEL BERNARDY is chief instructor/owner of RESCUEPAX, a company that offers custom all terrain technical rescue training programs and serves as the training officer for the Inver Grove Heights, MN, Fire Department. A 21 year veteran of both the career and volunteer fire service, Daniel is the former Minnesota Deputy State Fire Marshal responsible for public fire and life safety education and juvenile firesetter intervention. He was honored as the Minnesota Firefighter of the Year in 1996, and is a recipient of the Congressional Fire Service Institute Award. Daniel has presented a webcast titled Juvenile Firesetter Intervention Strategies - What is My Role? on Firehouse TrainingLIVE and participated in The Assistance to Firefighters Grant 2008 Program - Part 2: Success Stories podcast on You can reach Daniel by e-mail at