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Putting a Stop to the Fire Problem Begins with Public Education

Fire safety education has to be training, and we have to train our citizens to be successful in preventing and surviving fires the same way we train our firefighters to extinguish them.

Teaching fire safety education has to be more than lecture! It has to be more than catchy phrases and fire hats if we ever hope to make a difference! It has to be more than showing off the engine and playing games! Fire safety education has to be training, and we have to train our citizens to be successful in preventing and surviving fires the same way we train our firefighters to extinguish them. We must...or we will never see our community fire problems drop.

The following is from our own IFSTA Fire Instructor manual; our goal as public educators is not only for our students to learn, but to retain. According to this manual, a student:

  • Learns 11% of what they hear
  • Learns 83% of what they see
  • Retains 50% of what they see and hear
  • Retains 90% of what they say while doing

If these numbers are good enough to guide our instruction to our firefighters, then they are good enough to guide our instruction to the citizens we protect. If we are serious about preventing fires in our communities, then we must take a serious look at how we are conducting fire safety education in our communities.

The City of Beaufort was fortunate enough to be awarded a federal grant through the Assistance to Firefighters grant program to purchase a mobile education house. This house is front and center in our fire safety training programs because it utilizes visual, auditory, and tactile senses, the whole spectrum needed to enhance learning and retention, and has become quite popular in our community. In 2006, it was deployed 90 times, with 4,922 of our citizens receiving fire safety training in the house. However, you do not have to have a house to conduct successful fire safety training, just creative.

We instruct two variations of our fire safety training program in the house to accommodate what we have categorized as two different learning groups, each with their own safety issues and learning styles; the elementary school age child and the adults, which include teenagers starting at the middle school.

When working with the children, as always, in order for learning to take place, the student must be prepared to learn. As the children come into the house they are first greeted with stuffed animals, puppets and popular cartoon characters on display on the shelves and counters. Rapport is everything, and if a young child sees that your are versed in Sponge Bob, rapport is instant, and that is imperative to the learning process.

Within our education house we have stadium seating which allows us a "classroom" type setup with the ability to show videos. When we do use the lecture method in this "classroom," we do so in a question and answer format, challenging the students to come up with their own answers, and in essence - "to say while imaging (doing)," with our guidance only. This is also helpful when doing a repeat class the next year because this allows you to see what they have retained and gives you an opportunity to adjust your program.

In the "classroom," we discuss the following topics with the appropriate age groups:

Elementary school age - What firefighters do, how and when to call 911, smoke detectors and what to do when it goes off, where the smoke detectors should be located (their homework assignment is to go home and stand in their bedroom doorway and look up outside their bedroom in the hallway, and they should have a detector), matches and lighters (with older children we emphasize being responsible with such tools in front of younger children).

Adults - We prepare the student to learn through "shock and awe!" We challenge their false sense of security with fire safety by quoting statistics from the NFPA reports and then show them the Living Room Fire, DVD which shows the flashover of an average living room within 2:30. We leave the flashover scene paused for the remainder of the presentation. With adults, instead of teaching what firefighters do and how to call 911, we vary the presentation by discussing the common causes of fire using the safety house's stove, extension cords and power strips, overloaded outlets, and the safety house's fire place. We not only talk, we show and demonstrate, and solicit answers through the questions and answer format, thereby they are "saying (hearing) while seeing and imaging (doing)."

With all age groups - We also talk about cooking safety, even to the first graders. With the younger ages, after discussing the importance of never leaving cooking unattended, we instruct them to yell "STOP!" to any adult they see walking away from a working stove. After practicing as a group their loudest, "STOP!" we then "test" them by pretending to cook on the stove inside the house. We continue to talk while we "cook" and slowly walk away from the stove until the children yell "STOP!" Then they must recite how to make the stove safe again as we follow their instructions; "Put a lid on it, turn it off, slide it over!" They are "saying (hearing) while seeing (doing)!"

With all age groups - We then bring them into the bedroom section of the house and it's time to practice what we have talked about. We talk about the importance of sleeping with bedroom doors closed. Using fog juice to simulate smoke, we can demonstrate the efficiency of a bedroom door to keep smoke out, as well as the importance of having a smoke detector outside your bedroom. Note: One of the biggest feedbacks I get from parents of students I have instructed is that their child now insists on sleeping with the bedroom door closed.

With the bedroom door closed, we go over the rules of smoke detectors previously discussed in the "classroom." We then hit the remote control for the fog machine, allowing the fog juice to fill the classroom area on the other side of the closed bedroom door unaware to the students. Suddenly the smoke detector outside the bedroom starts to beep to the surprise, and sometimes shock, of the students. As we slowly open the door, the "smoke" pores in and we ask, "What now?" To that we get the obvious reply, "Shut the door!" Objective achieved! We didn't teach it, they taught themselves, and most importantly - they are "saying (hearing) while seeing (doing)!"

We then cover feeling doors for heat, staying low, and using windows as exits. We cover options for parents of children too young to understand such instructions, and advise them to place cribs in areas that can be reached quickly from windows (reminding them of security issues and the possible choking hazards of windows, and the need to discuss it as a family and come up with a plan). We also discuss the "Firefighter Chair" where children who are old enough to respond to the sounds of a smoke detector, but too young to comprehend a "hot door" or staying low, or may open the bedroom door to go look for mommy and daddy and panic, to sit in the "Firefighters Chair" by the window when they hear a detector. Should the parents be able to reach their child from inside the home, great! If not, the child will be sitting by a window where the parents can quickly reach them from outside. The purpose of this is to challenge the parents to think of their circumstances, and encourage family discussion to come up with a plan. The reply most often heard from parents, "I never thought of that!"

We finish up at the meeting place, a mail box with the name of the local newspaper, where adults get handouts and children get fire hats. When at a large community event, only children who complete the safety house will get a fire hat, and this generates quite a line at the door as the fire hats are seen in the crowd. We also at times require adults to accompany children to make sure we are reaching those who have the most control of fire safety in the home.

We are fighting fire through prevention education, and we must use the same tools and techniques that we use to train our firefighters to extinguish fires - to teach the public to prevent them. "Saying while doing," is the key to retention. While demonstrating everything may not always be practical, by challenging their mind and imagination through prompting correct reposes in question and answer format, "if you walk away from this stove while it is on, what could happen?" the students can visualize the situation. Combine that with saying and hearing, and you have a powerful combination.

To reduce fires we need to train our public, and if it is good enough for our firefighters who have proven their effectiveness in combating fires, that same approach is good enough for our public to prevent them.


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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