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Getting an Audience for Your Public Education Message

To get an audience, you need to sell your programs, and to effectively do that you have to create a need in the customer, and to do that, above all else, you need to be informed and be creative!

To conduct effective fire safety presentations you need to be giving the appropriate presentations and speaking to the right audiences. This does not come easy, as most people do not perceive a need to request a fire safety presentation, especially the people who need it the most, and view fire trucks and firefighters merely as decorations and attractions to a bigger event, or someone to talk to only in October. What better way to get people to come to your social event than to have a fire truck parked outside? Many people view firefighters in this fashion, and while this may mean that your "fire prevention" audience numbers are high, and while on paper it looks like you have an expansive fire safety program, your messages may not be getting to the people who need to hear them. Thus, fire continues to be a problem in our nation.

To get an audience, you need to target them. Targeting an audience means just that, pick them out and go and get them. That may mean starting in your own department and under your own roof with your own people. Targeting an audience means going from the defensive, or waiting for the requests to come in, and going offensive, and searching them out and selling them on setting up a presentation. Keyword: selling!

To get an audience, you need to sell your programs, and to effectively do that you have to create a need in the customer, and to do that, above all else, you need to be informed and be creative! Fire safety messages can be tied into any presentation and request. If a school teacher asks me to talk to her class about why, "Little Bo-Peep lost her sheep," you better believe it was because she didn't practice fire drills with her sheep! Get my point?

Develop and maintain relationships. Don't be that salesman who pesters them once a year in October trying to sell them something they do not feel they need nor have the time for. This will not have the long term affect that you need to effect a fire safety change in your community. Having successful programs means developing and maintaining relationships all year long. Not every request is fire safety orientated, but it is very important that whenever possible, those requests are fulfilled. By being creative, you can tie a fire safety message into everything you do, and by your department being known as a "go-to" department the public can count on, doors will open and the requests will start to pile in. You might be just helping to untangle a flag with your ladder truck from a flag pole in front of the school, but while talking to a now grateful Principal, you can put in a plug for one your programs. The Principal at this point is now in a position to be receptive to what you are saying, and compelled to assist you, because you are helping her. This is more effective than playing phone tag or trying to catch her during a busy day.

Do not be afraid to solicit. When a group comes to our department for fire safety, or has requested a presentation, we maintain their information in a data base, and the next year we send them a reminder or a follow up phone call, that we are available and would love to host their group or visit them again this year. This personal touch really goes a long way in developing those relationships. We often read the "Local Happenings" section of the paper to learn of events and potential audiences, and call to offer our services at their event. Many haven't even thought of including us.

Always keep in mind that every event, regardless of how many people are in attendance, will offer an opportunity to spread your message, and that by delivering that message, you may speak to that one person in the small crowd who will listen and use that information to prevent a fire or to save a life. When scheduling or conducting an event, think in terms of "one life at a time."

Sell your Customers and Your Firefighters First!

Promotion, promotion, promotion! Your department needs to be thinking promotion and prevention 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, from the Fire Chief to the back-step Rookie. The NFPA publishes amazing reports that every member of your department should be familiar with, and should be a part of your departmental training. An example is the yearly NFPA report titled, "Fire Loss in the U.S.," that contains very important and compelling statistics which discusses what is burning, how often, how much damage, as well as who and how many people are dying, among many other things important to persuade someone to practice fire safety. The first few pages of these reports contain all the statistics you need. Create a flyer with the highlights and post them all over the station where your firefighters frequent, such as in the bathroom in the stalls, or on the refrigerator, etc. Statistics are very important to selling, and should not be under estimated. If your firefighters are not educated on the what fire problem is, how can they educate the citizen? So when your firefighters are in a residence and notice a fire hazard, it is much more persuasive to encourage a change in behavior by stating; "Ma'am I see you do not have a working smoke detector here in your home, did you know that over 80% of the children who die every year in home fires will die in a home without a working smoke detector?"

Elementary Schools: We have found that coordinating with the Physical Education teachers to be the most effective to getting our programs in the elementary schools. Principals and individual teachers can be effective, but many times they are busy and you may find yourself playing phone tag to the point that the program is dropped or rushed. Many teachers feel they do not have the class time to spare for a guest speaker. However, in most states, Physical Education teachers are responsible for health and safety education, and fire safety fits right into their curriculum. It may help when selling your program to be familiar with your state requirements for such education, particularly injury prevention (where fire safety is often listed), to show how you can help the teacher fulfill an educational requirement, and that will help them justify the class time and it will portray you as an allay in their education curriculum, not a distracter. So it pays to do a little research before calling to sell your program.

One tactic we have successfully used in schools that we have not had much success in getting into, is that when we have a fire death or injury to a child locally, in the state or even the country, we send a copy of the article to the Principal with a letter reminding them of the importance of fire safety education, and that we have not been invited to their school yet, and then send a copy of that article and letter to the PTA. Aggressive? Yes, but we are trying to save lives, and that means being aggressive.

Other elementary school age programs primed to be an audience: After school, summer and intersession - After school programs and intersession programs offer a great opportunity to talk to children. These programs often are not only looking for entertaining and educational programs to fill time, but also role models, and who better than a firefighter. Organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club must also document and prove their effectiveness and community involvement for funding, and are more than willing to get your department involved. The YMCA, county or municipal summer programs, and school intercession programs, are always looking for interesting things to do to fill their time, so talk to your schools and your county or municipal community services division and see where your department can fit in. Keep them on a contact list and call them every year, develop that relationship.

Middle and High Schools: Important group to talk to, as many times it is these very students left home to care for younger siblings. This can be an intimidating and challenging audience, as fire trucks and firefighters no longer "wow" this crowd, but with a little effort and creativity, firefighters can once again be popular with this age group.

Physical education teachers may be helpful here, but this academic level broadens a bit - giving you more opportunity. Health and safety teachers, home economics teachers, science teachers, and school resource officers will help get you in front of an audience. Many high schools and middle schools have special programs such as child rearing and parenting classes, culinary arts, and social arts that operate outside the normal academics and will give you opportunities to grab attention, but still fulfill the academic need of the teacher, which sometimes is the key point. Talk to your Principals and ask what classes or career paths they offer at their school, and design your program to fit their academics accordingly.

Keep in mind you may need to fulfill their need in order to get in the door, which may not directly relate to fire safety, but again with a little creativity, you can still deliver your message effectively, again - "Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall because he had never heard a smoke detector before!" Try the PTA or other parent groups to help you make contacts and give presentations in the school.

Do not lose faith! It takes time to cultivate these relationships, and do not be discouraged when your calls are not returned. Be courteously persistent, be customer service orientated, and have a "whatever we can do" attitude, and soon those doors will open.

Adults: This is a difficult audience to reach because most adults do not see a need to sit through a fire safety program, they know "Stop, drop and roll" already. You really need to research and be familiar with fire statistics to sell this crowd, and demonstrate to them a need to have you speak to their group, because most adults only associate fire safety education with children, plastic fire hats and "Stop-drop and roll!"

Clubs & Organizations: Exchange Clubs and Rotary Clubs are great groups. Many members of these organizations are tasked with finding a guest speaker for the next meeting and are thrilled to find you, and many are leaders within their organizations and communities, which may offer a path to new audiences. Parent nights at local schools offer opportunities to not only talk fire safety, but to inform the parents of what you have been talking to their children about and the importance of continuing our messages at home. Churches are a great source for an audience. They have many groups within the congregation such as mother groups, father groups, couples groups, etc. The key here is that you have adults who are members of these groups in the hopes of improving their lives, and what better way than fire safety.

Colleges: Colleges offer a great opportunity to talk to adults! They offer a wide range in courses and are always looking for guest speakers. Again, be creative, and be original!! Get a copy of the local college classes and create a need for them to have you as a guest speaker. A math class may appreciate a class in hydraulics with hands on sessions at the pump panel. The students will love it and the professor will enjoy the buzz about the class (many times their job relies on student enrollment in their class). You can't talk about hydraulics without talking about fire chemistry, and of course you cannot talk about fire chemistry without discussing common reasons why fires start! Fire safety education complete! An architectural design class may appreciate a class on fire and building codes, now this is a great audience because these are the very same students who may be sitting across from you seeking approval for the new building they designed. Relationships!! The list of opportunities here is endless, but it relies on your ability to be creative and be on the offensive.

Department of Social Services: This is an important audience to reach because these are the same people with which a majority of our fires effect. Low education and economy have a direct link to fires and fire deaths, and the recipients of DSS are mostly poor and with a limited education. Many case workers are looking for guest speakers during community events, as well as offer various classes throughout the year for DSS recipients to improve their lives. This department may also oversee the drug and alcohol programs, again a target audience. Many agencies require their recipients to attend certain classes in order to continue to receive services, explore the option of adding fire safety to that list.

Senior Citizens: This is a great group to talk to and very rewarding. Many communities have senior groups such as the Salvation Army, the Red Hats, Young Hearts, as well as social groups tied directly to the county or municipality. They are always looking for guest speakers and unique programs to offer to their members. Even sending an engine company to one of their social events can go a long way and deliver important messages to a very important audience. Remember, this group learns best and relates best when talked to at a peer level, and not lectured to, which can be perceived as condescending. Talking about smoke detectors at a social event over dinner is more effective with this group than an official presentation. But knTailor fit your ow your statistics!

Again the newspaper, church flyers and school newsletters are a great source of who is meeting and when, as well as contact information. Tailor fit your program before you call; for example if you are calling on a men's group, after your introductory formalities, stating something like, "Men between the ages of 21 and 45 are more likely to be injured from fire, and that is why we want to talk to your group." Create a need in your customer!

The key to getting your target audience is selling your programs to them. It is where opportunity meets need, and you have to create both. Do some research in your state's laws and requirements for safety education in the schools, research what classes your local colleges offer, what groups or civic organizations are meeting and what their purpose is. There is your opportunity! Research and be familiar with your local fire statistics and national statistics. There is the need. Now create an approach in which your fire safety presentation fits into the group's goals, and how your presentation will assist the teacher, group leader, etc. in fulfilling their needs. That is where opportunity meets the need. But you have to create it.

Above all - be sure you are reaching the target audiences you need to effect your community fire problem. Talking to children about "Stop, drop and roll" is important, but will not help you quell the kitchen fires in your low income neighborhoods. Doing an engine display at the community fair may show great audience numbers and may make your program look awesome, but that will not help you reduce the number of heating fires in your "older adult" neighborhoods.

Go and get your audience, go offensive!! Be aggressive, be persistent, be customer service orientated, be the "go-to" people, and be patient. Cultivate those relationships, be sincere in your efforts, and the audiences will get larger, and the number of fires you are responding to will soon get smaller!


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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