Public fire and life safety programs are often viewed as the white elephants of the fire service. But this need not be the case. Through the proper approach, implementation, and follow-through, irrefutable success (or failure) can be shown in educational programs.
Imagine that you have stepped onto planet Earth for the first time today. As you stroll down Main Street USA, you notice a thick, dark column of smoke boiling skyward. As you round the corner, a house engulfed in flames stands before you. It is surrounded by a frenzy of activity. One group appears to be workers. They are clad in bulky clothing and wear colored domes on their heads. The remainder appear to be onlookers. They are dressed in thin clothing and simply stand and stare at the spectacle before them. As the fire and smoke start to die off, the workers begin to pick up their tools. Many onlookers move on but a small group remains huddled together, their eyes wide and their mouths open. The workers offer brief words to the onlookers but continue with their work. As the workers climb onto their large, red vehicles and prepare to leave, one is overheard saying to another, "We did a great job here today." Then they drive away.
As you survey the situation before you, it might strike you as odd that these workers would consider a partially destroyed house and a traumatized group of onlookers a "great job." It might even occur to you that a "great job" would have been the prevention of this tragedy before it began.
The Essence of Prevention
Just as the management of an emergency scene requires a strategic approach, so does a prevention program. The beginning of a successful project requires the assembly of the resources to do the job properly and completely. A team of people with the essential skills is critical and only with these resources can an idea be generated, implemented, documented, and evaluated in a useful manner. Each step is critical and the absence of any will be reflected in the final product.
Just as training, experience, and preparation are needed to bring an incident to a successful conclusion, the same characteristics will prove valuable for prevention programs. If one expects to prove their work valuable, the development of a clear and quantifiable goal coupled with methods to document and evaluate the effort is paramount.
To avoid the trap of addressing too many topics at one time, break the prevention project down into manageable segments. Probably the best way to do this is through that age old approach that is continually hammered into your head in every planning class you will ever see - the five step planning process; identification, analysis, design, implementation, and evaluation.
Identification is often self evident. But be careful to see the problem, not just the symptom. Are people dying because smoke alarms aren't working or are they dying because they are not taking care of their smoke alarms? The solution to each will be different.
Consider all aspects of a theme like "Get Out, Stay Out!" In order to get out of a building that is on fire, a person must first be alerted to that fire. This involves a working smoke alarm. Avoiding the inhalation of smoke is another important aspect of escape. The behavior of crawling low under smoke now becomes critical. Once outside the structure, the person must move to their safe meeting place. Once all inhabitants are safely out (or known to have not made it out), someone can be sent to call for help.
Which of these messages is most critical? Will your prevention program pick one or try to deliver multiple messages, possibly overloading the audience? Will the effort educate or confuse?
The situation outlined above can be avoided through the development of a clear and concise mission statement. Without a mission statement, your efforts may eventually drift away from your original plan as other outside forces influence the program. A good mission statement stems from clear identification of the problem to be solved and serves as a reference point from which all work should extend.