Beaufort Hispanic Life Safety Program Targets New Audience

The Beaufort Fire Department was fortunate to have two bilingual firefighters on staff that were eager to assist with the community.

Beaufort County is one of the fastest growing counties in South Carolina, and one of fastest growing populations in Beaufort County is the Hispanic population, many of which are migrant farmers who travel to the area to work in the agriculture fields.

With the increase of the Hispanic population, came an increase in the challenges to provide essential services to this demographic. While the 911 call volume has increased every year for the City of Beaufort, the amount of emergency calls involving the Hispanic population remained constant with other populations, but fire officials still made reaching out to this group a priority.

The City of Beaufort Fire Department not only desired to provide efficient and effective emergency response, but also prevention services as well. This posed a challenge not only because of the language barriers, but cultural differences, along with the distrust some of these foreigners may have of government services.

We were unsure if the number of emergency responses to Hispanic families was due to normal statistical flow, their lack of knowledge on 911, or their reluctance to seek help from city services. So our first hurdle was to educate these families that our purpose was to make sure they were safe, and make them feel confident and comfortable about calling in an emergency, and making sure they knew how to that.

The Beaufort Fire Department was fortunate to have two bilingual firefighters on staff that were eager to assist. Both bilingual firefighters, Sammy Negron and Vanessa Dominguez, went on to earn Community Service Awards from Firehouse Magazine for their Hispanic educational outreach efforts.

The key for us reaching this group was the same as it has been for all our groups. Constantly being involved in the community and networking to spread the word on what services we can provide, and then following through at every opportunity. The two most successful elements of this program are word of mouth and being aggressive with the message.

One of the first steps the Beaufort Fire Department made was to become involved with a Hispanic news program on the local cable station WJWJ. The news program was called "Nosotros," and the fire department became involved after the director saw a local fire safety program in the community, and inquired about the possibilities of doing the show. The Beaufort Fire Department jumped at the opportunity.

The Nosotros program reached over three counties, and after each news segment Firefighters Negron or Dominguez would appear with a safety message, or a talk on fire department operations. The Beaufort Fire Department designated a special phone line for Hispanic speaking families to call in and request smoke detectors, or with a safety question. A Spanish section was added to the department's website, which drew attention from countries as far away as Chili.

Monthly safety tips are also sent to local Hispanic newspapers, La Patria USA and La Voz Latina, along with department contact information. Because of their efforts to educate the Hispanic population and working so well with the fire department, both WJWJ and the La Patria USA received a South Carolina Firefighter's Association Media Award. Firefighter Negron has recently been invited to be a biweekly guest speaker on a Spanish radio station, SOL, which reaches the Hispanic population in two states. Again, safety and fire department operations are the topics.

We send the safety tips into the newspaper, but we do so in English, and they handle the translations for us. It is important to make sure the tips are short and simple with common wording. One challenge is the style of Spanish being spoken. For example Firefighter Dominguez was from Venezuela and Firefighter Negron was from Puerto Rico, and there were some words each spoke in Spanish which the other didn't understand because their Spanish was a little different due to their respective countries. So using common, easily translated words is important to getting your message out, and be aware, you may have a certain segment of the Hispanic populations that does not understand because the wording doesn't translate properly in their Spanish vocabulary.

As the exposure within the Spanish community began to grow, so did the educational opportunities. Firefighter Negron has been a constant participant at the summer Migrant Safety Camp which targets the children of Hispanic migrant workers. The students experience the Beaufort Fire Department's mobile safety education house and get hands on training in home fire safety. During this opportunity, the children really light up and come alive when they see a firefighter get up in front of them and start speaking Spanish, the kids really get excited about that and actively participate in the program.

Beaufort fire crews are also present during Hispanic voter registration drives and church events to hand out Spanish fire safety pamphlets, meet the people, and Sparky the fire dog is often seen wondering around giving high fives to the thrilled children.

Another important Hispanic group the Beaufort Fire Department began working with was the ESOL (English as a Second Language) program. ESOL is a liaison program that is county-wide within the school system, where a staff member from each school works with families whose primary language is Spanish. These families meet monthly or quarterly either as individual schools, or as a county, and are always looking for guest speakers. Beaufort firefighters have not only been able to do home fire safety training with whole Hispanic families in the education house, but fire extinguisher training as well. The ESOL group has also been an instrumental liaison for Hispanic families needing smoke detectors and fire extinguishers which the Beaufort Fire Department provides, and installs, for free.

While overall emergency calls for the Hispanic population is no higher than other cultural groups for the city of Beaufort Fire Department, it is a group that is a priority for fire officials due to their growing numbers, lack of knowledge on home fire safety and emergency procedures, and often their economic means which makes purchasing smoke detectors and fire extinguishers difficult, and where teenagers are often the care givers for younger siblings. The payoff is not only a safer community, but the sense of community itself, as the relationship between the Hispanic population and the fire department becomes closer.

With the country in turmoil over immigration, and tensions high in many communities, it is now more important than ever to reach out to this cultural group; the actions of the fire department itself could be the catalyst to ease such tensions. It is our responsibility as a fire service to be proactive, not reactive, and that's what these programs are all about.

Getting started in bridging this gap and educating this population is as simple as reaching out and getting involved, the exposure and word of mouth alone will take it the rest of the way. Most importantly being creative! No matter what type of support you have been requested for, you can always tie in safety with a little creativity.

 


Daniel Byrne is a Lieutenant, EMT-P, with the City of Beaufort, SC, Fire Department and currently serves in the capacity of Fire Marshal, Public Education Officer and Public Information Officer for the City of Beaufort and Town of Port Royal. Daniel has been involved with the emergency services for 20 years, with the last 10 in the fire service. He is National Fire Academy Alumni and currently a volunteer with the Beaufort County EMS. A veteran of the Desert Shield/Storm war with the U.S. Marine Corps, he is a Technical Sergeant, Airport Crash Crew, with the Georgia Air National Guard Fire Protection Division. In 2006 the City of Beaufort Fire Department was awarded the South Carolina "Richard S. Campbell Award" for excellence in public fire safety education. You can e-mail Daniel at dbyrne@beaufortfiredept.com.

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