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The first two installments in this series on America's biggest fire problem — fires in residential occupancies — addressed ways to develop an effective and comprehensive "fire safety" program, particularly for young children. This column will address how older children and adults can be educated about fire safety.
Middle school and high school — this is an important age group. These students are the babysitters and often the oldest ones at home looking after younger siblings. While this age can be intimidating to a fire safety educator, because at this stage firefighters and fire trucks have largely lost their glimmer, it is an age group in which a long-term impression can still be made. This is the age at which we introduce and conduct true fire prevention and fire extinguisher training. We get them involved by not only having them physically demonstrate the skills needed, but also the mental educational process needed to reinforce it.
Lecture alone often will not make the biggest impact. Remember, this is the age that they feel invincible and believe that bad things cannot happen to them. Therefore, our presentation shows them that fire can, and will, affect their lives and why fire safety knowledge is important. We also stress that their younger siblings are counting on them for protection and to know what to do should a fire occur.
We use statistics and local newspaper articles to discuss fires, the leading causes of fires locally and nationally, and fire injuries and deaths. Using a guided discussion format after the initial presentation, the students will then come to their own conclusion as to why a fire started, why there was an injury or death, and what could have been done to prevent it. By doing this, they are analyzing current real-life information and using it to make appropriate fire safety decisions on their own. If there are students in the class who have experienced a fire, encourage them to discuss the events. Peer groups are very important to the learning process at this age.
We also read articles concerning firefighter deaths and how fires affect the entire community. We ask the students thought-provoking questions like, "Is there such a thing as an accidental fire?" "Are fires accidents or negligence, and should people be held accountable for the damages and community costs?" "How would you feel if a firefighter is injured at a fire at your house because you left a pot on the stove?" We discuss how other countries view fires. This type of discussion gets them thinking, talking and debating fire safety. It also helps them to realize the effects of unsafe practices not just on their lives, but the lives of others, and their responsibility to be fire safe.
While there are several academic courses in the middle school that offer an opportunity to reach this group, the middle school in Beaufort, SC, has an enrichment program that lets members of the community teach their skills, talents and professions. The Beaufort Fire Department teaches a Youth Academy twice a week for 45 minutes each quarter. The students attend a miniature academy and learn fire science and firefighting, see and use our gear, and learn and apply equipment and tactics. The course culminates in a real search-and-rescue scenario. This hands-on program lets the students learn about the dynamics of fire and firefighting, see how it applies to their lives right now, and learn about the hazards of fire and how to prevent it and survive it. It also gives them the confidence to be able to help others.