Success in Fire and Life Safety Education

I saw a movie several years ago that left an impression with me. I think about the its message often. The movie showed the audience how differently a young woman's life would have been had she just not missed the subway train one morning on her way to work. A split-second mishap put into motion actions that eventually changed her life in drastic ways.

I have always been a firm believer in fate, luck and happenstance. I also put quite a bit of stock in planning and preparedness. While I have all my bases covered I like to think that each time someone in the fire service interacts with the public a potentially lifesaving initiative is set in motion. Something is begun that can eventually change someone's life!

In my job as Fire Safety Education Coordinator for the Plano Fire Department I am responsible for scheduling and coordinating fire and life safety educational programs for our department. I send our on-duty firefighters to schools, block parties, senior centers…anywhere that we can share messages and teach people, young and old, how to stay safe. We reach a lot of people each year through these programs and I am confident that we are making a positive impact toward saving lives.

I also know that it is often the impromptu, unplanned, and unscheduled interaction that our firefighters or I have with the citizens that sometimes leads to the best educational opportunities. It may be while shopping for groceries that a firefighter shares a fire safety message with a young child at the grocery store. It may be a quick conversation on the phone with a citizen about smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors. Perhaps it is the message on the side of all our apparatus stating that "Seat belts save lives." The information casually relayed may be the information that eventually ends up saving a life.

In the fire service our mission is to save lives and while we know it happens we do not always receive word about it happening. The dramatic news footage of a firefighter coming from a smoky building with an unconscious toddler in his hands is the more common way the public envisions firefighters saving lives. But the more common save is the immeasurable goal. We do not always get to put a tally mark in the "Saved" column. The mother who took a few seconds to turn her pot handles inward right before her toddler reaches to the stove may just say a silent prayer of thanks and continue on cooking dinner. The homeowner who decides to put up smoke alarms after a conversation with some firefighters at the gas station may not call the fire station to tell them about how the newly installed smoke alarms alerted his family to the fire in their garage. How wonderful it would be if every time a save happened word could somehow get back to the ones responsible for the safety messages shared? Wouldn't it be great if a tally mark could appear in our "Saved" column each time our safety messages resulted in a save? How inspiring it would be to see the tally marks accumulate. I envision a big, old-fashioned chalkboard in the fire station, much like they used for apparatus assignments, probably hung somewhere in the kitchen, that would silently mark the saves our safety lessons, both planned and impromptu, set into motion.

Our world is full of numbers and statistics these days. Having the numbers to back up a fact or to use in a persuasive discussion is a great benefit to keeping statistics on all sorts of subjects. I personally use the statement, "Having a working smoke alarm in your home decreases your chances of dying in fire in your home by 50 percent," quite often. I think it packs a big punch. It is unfortunate that all the great educational efforts that we know are resulting in saves are not measurable. The tallies on that big old fashioned chalkboard would accumulate quite fast if they were.

While gathering my thoughts for this article I attended the National Fire Protection Association's 2006 Risk Watch Conference in Boston. Risk Watch is an injury prevention curriculum designed to teach children how to stay safe and Plano was part of the pilot program back in 1997. The keynote speaker at this conference was World Figure Skating Champion Barbara Underhill. She told the tragic story of her personal journey of wonderful triumphs she experienced in her sport and the devastating loss of her eight month old twin daughter in 1993 to drowning. She spoke of how a memorial fund set up for her daughter, Stephanie Gaetz, grew with donations from friends and family members. Soon Barbara was contacted by SafeKids Canada about being a spokesperson for their organization. Knowing it would be difficult to relive the tragedy over and over again, Barbara hoped something positive would eventually come from sharing her story. The Stephanie Gaetz Keepsafe Foundation now works together with injury prevention professionals to support and fund safety related programs.

In her keynote address to the more than 150 attendees at the Risk Watch Conference, Barbara thanked us for what we do. She told us that if we are doing our jobs right we most likely won't hear about it. I thought how timely her address was to my penning this article and how we were on the same wavelength. She told us all how she hoped her work, and that of the Foundation's, would prevent even one family from having to endure the same devastating loss.

Recently in Plano it was just happenstance that word did get back to the fire department and my office that a save had occurred in our community as the result of fire safety education efforts taught by our personnel.

Back in May of 2005 following several months of our department's work with the Home Safety Council's pilot of their Fire Safety Literacy Project, we found out that one of the adult students involved in the program had used information and materials she had received during the project to save the life of her neighbor. Word of the save might never have made it back to us here at the PFD had the coordinator at Even Start not called just to chat and catch up on news. It was during this personal phone call that she shared with me the story of the save. I told her what great news this was and my next phone call was to the Home Safety Council. Before long news had reached all involved in the save, beginning with Lowe's, who donated the Kidde fire extinguisher that put out the growing apartment fire, to my fire chief Bill Peterson, who had given me the chance to pilot this great program, and finally back to the coordinators of the Fire Safety Literacy Project at the Home Safety Council. What a wonderful feeling. While none of us could see it, I know a mark in the "Saved" column silently appeared.

While many in the fire service consider conducting public education programs or community outreach efforts as the less glamorous or exciting part of the job, it is important to remember that the interaction we have with our citizens, our public, our kids is just as vital as the adrenaline-pumping call made when the tones go off. So to the fire crews tasked with fire and life safety education efforts, I ask you to remember that with commitment to the goal of preventing fires and injuries and diligence in educating our citizens on how to be safe we can widen our view of a saved life from that sole image of the firefighter emerging from the burning home with a toddler in his arms to the vision of that chalkboard silently tallying the marks of the lives most certainly saved.


Peggy Harrell is the Fire Safety Education Coordinator for the Plano Fire Department in Plano, Texas. She is the recipient of the 2006 Safety Education Hero Award sponsored by the Home Safety Council and the Congressional Fire Service Institute. She can be reached at peggyha@plano.gov

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