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1st Impressions - Lasting Impressions

Should our first meeting with this age group go awry, a barrier will then be placed in the middle of the road for reaching out to these children in the future.

How many times have we been told by our parents, our employers or have even told our children, "You never get another chance to make a first impression, and a first impression is a lasting impression?" How many of us, through painful experience, have realized that in this case, our parents knew exactly what they were talking about, and have paid the price for failing to make that important first impression.

It is with this very spirit that the Beaufort Fire Department has created the "1st Impressions - Lasting Impression" program. This program is designed for, and targeted to, children of daycare and pre-kindergarten age, an age when children are beginning to form those valuable first impressions, not only on topics such as fire safety, but firefighters as a whole.

While we may think we are approachable and fun loving, to a small child, we can be quite intimidating. Should our first meeting with this age group go awry, a barrier will then be placed in the middle of the road for reaching out to these children in the future.

I learned this valuable lesson early, when bringing a daycare class out to our safety education house I ignored the look of fear and apprehension upon their faces. Thinking I could win them over with enthusiasm, I continued on. It started with just one child - he began to sniffle, then it spread to another, then another, and then it came - one child began to scream a scream of total horror and the chain reaction started. It was all over.

Returning to that class weeks later, it was apparent that I had in fact made an impression, as the children started to whimper again as I walked into the class, and they had to be reassured that it was OK.

We knew then we had to find a different approach. According to the NFPA's 2005 Characteristics of Home Fire Victims, children under five years old are 75% more likely to die in a house fire than the average person, so ignoring them and waiting until they reach elementary school just was not an option. We were determined to find a way to reach them.

We took a look at our overall goal for such a program. While education is always a goal, that would not be our focus. Introduction was the key! Introducing firefighters and safety education as a fun and exciting experience was the main goal, as well as slipping in a few tid-bits of education along the way, setting a strong foundation for them and their future safety education, as well as for the fire service.

Programs at this age group have to be quick, as attention spans will not allow for much time, and messages have to be presented (not spoken) in an interactive and enthusiastic way. The program would have to be constant and reinforcing, building upon itself with each lesson. We also wanted the program to be adaptive, so we could add future "all risk" injury prevention material into the program.

As we designed the program, we limited it to 30 minutes per lesson, which we thought, and have found, is just about right. Considering the capacity of the daycare, preschool child to retain information, we took a look at the important bullets we wanted this program to convey.

  1. Introduce firefighters, what we do, how to call 911, encourage fire stations as places to go for help, BASIC Exit Drills in the Home (E.D.I.T.H.) concepts and smoke detectors.
  2. Matches and lighters are big topics for this group. Teaching them to recognize them as tools, not toys, and what to do if they should see them lying around
  3. Stop-Drop-Roll
  4. The "Friendly Firefighter," what we look and sound like in gear.

An important aspect to this program is parental involvement. At the end of each day, the child goes home with a one page colored flyer, highlighting what the child learned that day, and most importantly, what the parent can do to reinforce the material.

Day One

Day one is our introduction day, and the most important day. We not only introduce ourselves, but the children introduce themselves as well. This is a good day to get a feel for what the children already know. We do this by talking with them, not too them, and reading a fire service orientated child's book.

After our introduction we ask simple questions, like "What do I do, what is my job?" Many students will reply, after seeing the uniform and badge, "you are a police officer and you arrest people." As part of our program, rather than simply correcting them, we use this opportunity to educate them by re-asking, "What do police officers carry with them?" "Do you see anything like that on me?" We then guide them to find their own conclusion that we must be firefighters. Then we ask, "What do we do?" The answers always involve fire and rescue, which are good, but we continue on and as before, they supply the answers and find the solutions; "If you are hurt, can firefighters help you?" "If you are really sick and need a doctor fast, can firefighters help you?" "If you are lost and scared, could you find a firefighter for help?" The idea is to instill in them that we are community helpers and can help them whenever they are in trouble. This is a good means to see what the children already know and how they perceive firefighters.

The next topic is how to find a firefighter. We talk about fire stations, and ask if they have ever been to the fire station by their house, sadly to which all too many of them say "no." But we encourage them to stop by anytime. Then we introduce 911 and talk about what an emergency is, such as a fire, accidents, getting hurt, bad people trying to get them, etc. An effective way to describe what an emergency is to this age group is by making the association with being scared. "Would a fire make you scared?" "Would a bad person trying to get you make you scared?" Then we associate that feeling with 911, and that if they ever feel scared and can't find an adult, to call 911. We always finish with, "Does a kitty cat in a tree make you scared?" "Then should you call 911 for that?" By the conclusion of this portion, the answer is "no."

Next we read them a book. We choose a child's book that describes fire stations, station life, fire trucks, equipment, 911, responding to emergencies and what firefighters do. This is our chance to connect with them. We talk in character voices, have the children make siren noises, water noises, and we are animated and focused on getting the children involved. We talk about the "special gear" firefighters wear and have the children make muffled air noises. The book we use shows a family at a window being rescued and we talk about the importance of not hiding in a fire and to go to the window if they can't get out the door. The book also shows the firefighters going back in to rescue the family pet, showing the important lesson of not going back inside.

At the end of day one we give all the children a sticker, and talk about the game we will be playing the next day to build anticipation, the "Tools & Toys" and "What's Hot - What's Not" games.

Day Two

We start off day two by recapping the first day, going over all the information and making all the sounds and noises, and then we start our "Tools & Toys," game.

As part of our game we bring in a tool box with real tools (all still safely in their packages) and a toy box with some of the popular toys (such as Sponge Bob dolls, etc.). We talk about each box and stress that tools go in the tool box and that is an adult box, and toys go into the toy box, and those are for them to play with. As part of the game, we hold up an item of each, a tool or a toy, and the children have to state which box they are to go in. We help them decide by asking, "Can you play with this, and can it hurt you?" If they answer that they can play with it and it cannot hurt them, it goes into the toy box, if they state they cannot play with it and it will hurt them, into the adult tool box it goes! Towards the end we show matches and various lighters, especially the lighters that look like toys, and steer the children into realizing that they are tools that can hurt them, and that they go into the tool box for adults to use.

We end day two with the, "What's Hot - What's Not," game. We talk about burns and the need to stay away from things that are hot. We show various items to include toys, irons, curling irons, outlets, frying pans, etc. and ask the child, "What is this?" "Is it hot or is it not?" If it is a hot item, it goes next to the tool box as a "parent tool" and if it is not, then it goes by the toy box as a child's toy.

We also introduce smoke detectors at the end of the second day, as by this time the children are comfortable with us, and each subsequent day will end with the sounds of a smoke detector and basic E.D.I.T.H. skills. We introduce the detector as our, "Smoke detector puppy dog." We correlate smoke detectors with a puppy dog because both have a nose (which we show), both sniff and both bark at danger, and it is an easy mental relationship for the child to understand. "So what does a puppy dog do when it smells danger?" We talk about barking and have all the children make barking noises until they are laughing, and then introduce the "Smoke detector puppy dog's bark." With each "beep," the puppy dog talks, BEEP - "Get," BEEP - "Out of," BEEP - "The house!" We have the children repeat this with each beep, getting louder and louder until they drown out the detector, taking away the detector's intimidating sound. No matter how old they get or where they are, when we activate the smoke detector, the former student always repeats in cadence, "Get - out of - the house."

After day two, all children get a coloring book and are challenged to find the, "smoke detector puppy dog," as well as the "Tools and Toys" and "What's Hot, What's Not," items.

Day Three

We start day three with a recap of the last two days; repetition is an important learning tool for this age.

On day three we play the "Stop-Drop-Roll" game. We use a cloth mat and cloth flames with Velcro. We tape the "flames" to the child and ask, "You've got fire on your cloths, what do you do now?" The entire class replies with excitement, "Stop-Drop-Roll." The child then rolls around until all of the "flames" come off.

Day three finishes with our "smoke detector" puppy dog barking. The class gets up and marches to the door, feels the door for heat, then over to the window where we then practice "making funny faces" at the pretend firefighters outside. This emphasizes the need to go to the window where they can be seen and signal for help. Just as with the cadence of the talking "smoke detector puppy dog," children will always remember making faces or throwing stuffed animals out the window to get the firefighter's attention.

Each child gets a "Junior Firefighter" badge on day three.

Day Four

Day four is the day we bring our "Firefighter Friends," the ones we have been talking about all week, to the class. As before we start with a recap of the previous days, complete with making noises, character voices and the march to the tune of the "smoke detector puppy dog."

On this day we have all the children sit semi-circle, and have a firefighter in a station uniform stand before them. We then talk about the special clothes firefighters wear during emergencies, the same special clothes we had read about in the story book on the first day, and we repeatedly ask, "Is this firefighter scary, should you be afraid of him?" We keep asking that question as the firefighter slowly places on all his gear, piece by piece after the children have had a chance to touch it.

Before the firefighter "breaths air," we have the children make a loud sucking noise as they breathe in and out, and the firefighters laugh at the silly noise the children just made. The firefighter in gear then goes "on air" in an attempt to make the same sucking noise as the children, and then the children breath with him, making the sucking noises. "He sounds just like you doesn't he?"

Then we play the "Where are you?" game. The children sit semi circle, placing their feet out in front of them. The firefighter in gear and breathing air says loudly, "Where are you," to which the children reply, "Here I am!" The firefighter repeats this as he crawls around the circle and tapes the feet of each child. This introduces the children to the sounds of a firefighter in gear and to respond to his calls. Once the circle is complete, the firefighter goes to the center of the circle and the children come up to shake his/her hand and touch the gear. Very rarely, at this point, is there a child afraid to shake the firefighter's hand. We have found that female firefighters work best during this period of the program.

We end day four, and the program, with the children going outside to see the fire truck and climb through the cab. Each child gets a fire hat, and the teachers can take photos of their students with the fire truck, which then go home with the child or adorns the classroom walls.

This program has been a huge hit with local classrooms, as teachers remark over and over how much their student's have retained, and we see proof of that as we see these same students later in the year during our lunch program or another classroom visit. The program introduces firefighters in a fun, interactive and non-threatening way which builds a solid foundation for a relationship between the children and the fire department, as well as future education.

We have not limited our attempt to making a positive "1st Impression," to just children, and have conformed our program to the important adult audience, those who have the biggest control on fire prevention and fire safety. In our "Offensive" fire safety outreach, we have "targeted" adult groups with whom we feel it is important to make a big impact with that positive "1st Impression."

We conduct programs with local colleges and speak with college students who are studying to become school teachers, hotel managers, chefs, and building/construction professionals. While these are adults, they are taking the important initial steps into their professions, and thus the need to make a positive "1st Impression - Lasting Impression" on the need for fire safety in their respective fields.

First impressions are in fact lasting impressions, and with this audience we cannot afford to take that fact lightly. Showing fire trucks and handing out fire hats are good public relations, but accomplishes nothing for fire safety education. This program combines both events in a simple, quick and adaptive way with minimum manpower and funds, getting this biggest bang for your first impression.

While this program is "fire survival" orientated and should not be counted towards your "fire prevention" numbers, it is a program that will pay off for you and your department for many future years. These children will soon be in elementary school, middle school, high school and then tax paying citizens. This is a "grassroots" movement, and such movements make the biggest impact in the long term, and most importantly help us fulfill our ultimate goal of saving lives and property from the ravages of fire.

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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