Performance Management In Public Fire Education

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For years, the fire service has collected data on fire fatalities. Through the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS), we now have at our fingertips all kinds of important information on the national fire experience. Today, we know where people are most likely to die from fire (homes), what ignition sources are likely to cause fatalities (smoking) and even the material involved in fatal fire ignitions (mattresses, bedding and upholstered furniture). Our ability to understand and learn from our fire experience has improved dramatically over the years as we have increased our ability to capture, analyze and report performance data. This is a good trend indeed.

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Photo courtesy of Austin Fire Department
The Austin, TX, Fire Department partnered with an outdoor theater to sponsor the rollout of the “Freddy Finger” fire safety education campaign. Firefighters handed out “Freddy” foam fingers, door hangers with the “Freddy Finger“ message and general information about smoke alarms.

But the question begs: What are we doing with this important information? As we continue to learn and grow as an industry, are we using both local and national performance data to inform our decisions – to refine policy, define mission and scope, and rethink current practices? Or, is the data simply used to report what is happening – an ongoing look at the fire problem in our communities and country? This is an important distinction and not one to be taken lightly. On the one hand, we are actively engaged in the performance process, looking at and exploring the meaning of our data and performance information. On the other, we are simply spectators to the ever-growing mountain of data, churning out questionable statistics.

In a society that is becoming increasingly obsessed with “what the numbers say,” it is important that we not only begin to ask the very same question – what are the numbers telling us – but also, and more importantly, what can we do about it? Essentially, this is the difference between being an organization that simply collects a lot of data, and one that actually uses the data to explore the effectiveness of its services and programs.

In 2002, the City of Austin, TX, found itself experiencing a very disturbing trend in its performance data. By July 2002, the city had already experienced nine fatalities from fire. Austin’s average fire fatality rate is five per year, which is good for a city of 700,000 residents. To be well over the annual average by mid-year was a frightening prospect. In fact, the worst year for fire fatalities in the city’s history had been in 1981, when 16 people died from fire. At the mid-year rate in 2002, it appeared as if the city was on a record-breaking path.

Historically, we would have assumed that Austin was simply experiencing an inevitable statistical spike – the anomaly year. In fact, as an industry, we tend to assume that some years will just be “bad.” More people will die, more structures will burn, and more firefighters will be injured – it’s just the cyclical nature of the work. But, in today’s changing political environment, simply accepting dramatic performance trends as the inevitable whims of destiny is no longer acceptable. Today, we have to be asking the fundamental question, “What’s going on here and why, and what can we do about it?”

Understanding the Problem

After the ninth fire fatality in 2002, the Austin Fire Department pulled together a cross-functional team of employees and tasked them to go back and evaluate every single fatal fire incident and attempt to identify what was going on. This “Fire Fatality Task Force” was given the daunting (and to some, threatening) task of looking at each incident critically – asking difficult questions about our firefighting practices, response times, on-scene procedures and the effectiveness of our inspections. The charge was to identify whether these fatal fires could have been prevented, not to assign blame.

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Photo courtesy of Austin Fire Department

As we pored through the incident reports and talked to the fire crews, a very interesting trend began to emerge. In every single case where an Austin resident had died from fire in a structure, the fatality had occurred in the absence of a working smoke alarm. Our research did identify a number of other areas for performance improvement, but none of them would have resulted in a different outcome (such as response times, etc.). The only common characteristic in the Austin fatal fire experience was that each person who died in a structure did so in the absence of an operating smoke alarm.

This was an interesting discovery. For years, the keystone to the fire service’s public education efforts has been to urge residents to install smoke alarms in every home. As an industry we have pursued this goal through education and regulation. Indeed, for 20 years now we have made this message our central community awareness theme – get a smoke alarm in your home!

Well, folks, guess what? It worked. The Austin fire experience taught us that every single fatal fire we experienced in 2002 occurred in homes that HAD smoke alarms, they just were not operational. The alarms were old, disabled or poorly maintained, but they were there. What’s also alarming is that there was no demographic or geographic clustering of the fatal fires. The fires had occurred all over the map, suggesting that the chances of dying from fire in Austin are relatively equal regardless of where one lives.

Like a thunderclap, we realized that we had achieved our goal of getting life-saving smoke alarms in almost every home in Austin, but we had failed to tell our public to test them. The life-saving smoke alarms that had been installed throughout the city of Austin, we discovered, were largely useless.

A Burning Platform

On Christmas Eve 2002, within the span of one hour, four Austin citizens died from fire. Three of the victims were boys ages 7 to 12. The boys died from smoke inhalation in a home that had three non-operational smoke alarms. Within the same hour, a fourth citizen died from smoke inhalation related to an overheated light ballast (no fire). There was a smoke alarm three feet from the ballast – not working. In all four cases, a $20 piece of plastic with a battery could have made a difference. The alarms didn’t have a chance, because they had been disabled.

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Photo courtesy of Austin Fire Department

Since the Fire Fatality Task Force already had spent the majority of the year asking questions about our fire experience, studying the data and exploring our operations, we were prepared with a powerful message when these fatal fires occurred. As the fire marshal for the City of Austin, I called a press conference at the scene of the triple-fatality fire and invited all media outlets to the scene. While there, I shared what we had learned from our examination of the performance data – that 13 people had died from fire in structures in 2002, and in every single case, they had died in the absence of a working smoke alarm. I made a strong appeal to the Austin public to take responsibility for their own safety and begged them to help us get the word out that a smoke alarm will not save lives unless it is working.

Building a Message

The terrible tragedy of the Christmas Eve fires, coupled with our strong appeal to the Austin community to help get the word out, resulted in an incredible outpouring of support. Literally overnight, the issue of working smoke alarms became the central stage conversation in public discourse. All the local media affiliates, radio and press media agreed to make working smoke alarms a central community awareness theme, and to give assistance to the department in building a campaign to address this emerging community problem. Perhaps most importantly, a local advertising agency – Special Audience Marketing (SAM) – called and offered free assistance to help the department build a working smoke alarm awareness campaign. Their offer was simple but profound: Since this is a community problem and we are part of the community, we want you to have our services for free; let’s build a message that will save lives.

To manage the outpouring of support, we created a second task force, comprised of fire professionals, media, citizens and SAM consultants. Our charge was simple: Austin homes have smoke alarms, but they are not operational, so how do we communicate to our citizens that they must take responsibility for testing their smoke alarms?

After an initial series of meetings, we decided that our mutual goal should be to craft a message that would appeal to the unique personality of Austin, and also capture the essence of the problem. While we wanted to approach the problem scientifically, it was equally important that we develop a creative response that would appeal to our broader market and result in a positive change in behavior. We wanted a clear, consistent message that we can use year after year to address the importance of working smoke alarms.

To achieve this goal, we conducted a series of focus group interviews with Austin citizens of varying ages. We wanted to find out what was going on in Austin and what people were thinking when it came to smoke detection. Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long to identify a clear pattern. Here’s what we learned from our research: Most Austin homes have smoke detection; however, the occupants rarely test their smoke alarms and frequently disable them due to nuisance false alarms; therefore, many Austin smoke alarms are non-operational. Perhaps most interesting is that every single participant knew how to test a smoke alarm. When asked, inevitably they would put their finger in the air and say, “Put your finger on the button.”

This finding provided a clear road map for the development of our educational campaign. Now, we know the message we need to communicate is that a working smoke detector saves lives, but in order to work, it has to be tested regularly. To test your alarm, you have to put your finger on the test button – or, put more simply, you have to put your finger on it.

Introducing Freddy!

Based on SAM’s thorough focus group research and the input from our panel of experts, we created Freddy Finger – a smoke alarm that reminds you to test your alarms once a month. The simple slogan “Put A Finger On It!” is easy to remember and appeals to both kids and adults alike.

This message is simple, clear and catchy. There are also a number of variations on the theme that we can explore as we communicate this important message to our citizens, such as:

  • “Lift a Finger for Fire Safety”
  • “Stay in Touch with Fire Safety”
  • “Put Your Finger on Fire Safety”
  • “Give Fire the Finger” (my favorite)

Each message carries a Freddy Finger picture, giving branding and recognition to our campaign. Most important, the Freddy graphic is demonstrating the one gesture that all our focus group participants recognized as critical to testing their smoke alarms – lifting a finger.

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Photo courtesy of Austin Fire Department
An Austin firefighter distributes “Freddy” foam fingers at the rollout of the fire safety campaign.

To introduce Freddy to the Austin public, we partnered with a local outdoor theater to sponsor the rollout of the Freddy campaign. On a Saturday evening in July 2003, in front of 1,000 Austinites, we introduced Freddy Finger and the Put A Finger On It! Campaign. Austin Fire Department personnel canvassed the crowd and handed out Freddy foam fingers, door hangers with the Freddy message and general information on smoke alarms. Sparky the firedog moved through the crowd barking the Put A Finger On It! message. We had fire apparatus on display and games and trinkets for the children – all with the Freddy Finger message. The media and the public loved the event, and Freddy became famous overnight.

On the Sunday after the rollout event, with the media in tow, every single fire apparatus in the Austin Fire Department fleet (50) spent the afternoon canvassing their still alarm territories, distributing Freddy Finger door hangers, and visiting with the public on the importance of working smoke alarms. In one day, we distributed more than 100,000 door hangers throughout the city and every media outlet ran a story about the importance of the campaign.

The 9 Lives of Freddy Finger

On Monday, July 29, 2003, one day after the Freddy Finger rollout, Austin experienced another fatal fire. A young professional model had just returned from a trip, was tired and went to bed early. A cigarette she had been smoking smoldered in her mattress and bedding, and she was overcome by toxic gases, and died. On the ceiling outside of her open bedroom door was a smoke alarm – no battery. Swinging on the screen door of her home was a Freddy Finger door hanger that Austin firefighters had placed the day before. She never saw it. The media went crazy, and so did we.

While it may sound mercenary to leverage a personal tragedy to bring about positive behavioral change, it is an undeniable truth that major change (in policy, practice or behavior) almost always follows on the heels of terrible events. In fact, it is arguable that firefighters must highlight tragedy in order to communicate important safety information to their citizens. While the Austin community and its firefighters were mourning the loss an innocent young woman, we made sure that our citizens knew that once again a preventable death had occurred in the presence of a non-operational smoke alarm. The newspaper ran a front-page picture of Freddy hanging on her door.

Three weeks later, in the span of one week, Freddy Finger saved nine lives. In two separate fire events – both started by people smoking in bed – a family of six and a family of three escaped their homes due to the early warning of working smoke detectors! In both cases, a Freddy Finger door hanger, plus the news coverage of the young woman’s fire, had prompted them to check their smoke alarms, which were all not operational. Both families replaced their alarms and are alive and well today. We know this because they called the fire department (in tears) to thank us for our Freddy Finger campaign.

Since the death of the young model, the City of Austin has not experienced a single fatality in a structure fire, and we continue to get reports that working smoke alarms are saving lives. Freddy is alive and well in the City of Austin.

What’s Next for Freddy?

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Photo courtesy of Austin Fire Department
A billboard displays a new version of the “Put a Finger on It” fire safety education campaign that addresses smoking in bed, which was the cause of all five of the fire fatalities that occurred in Austin during 2003.

Through public funding and donations, over the next year we expect to introduce Freddy Finger billboards, posters, book covers, apparatus decals and commercials. In fact, the success of the Freddy Finger campaign in Austin has inspired a number of local agencies to take up the baton and carry the message forward on their own. Two separate TV stations have taken up smoke alarms as their philanthropic campaign for the year and have built countywide coalitions to promote the life-saving virtues of smoke alarms.

What’s more, Freddy is going national. As cities and counties hear about the success of this campaign, they are introducing Freddy to their own communities (see www.PutaFingerOnIt.org). Most major U.S. cities are in the same place as Austin was one year ago – their citizens live in homes with smoke alarms that are useless. For 20 years now, the fire service has been telling its citizens to install smoke alarms. Our citizens did as we instructed, and now their alarms are old and failing. Freddy captures the imagination and reminds our citizens that non-working smoke alarms are nothing more than lumps of useless plastic.

Finally, the U.S. Fire Administration has discovered Freddy and is incorporating the campaign into its menu of Best Practices in local public education efforts. National Fire Academy students can expect to hear about Freddy as they study model programs in fire and life safety.

Let the Data Do the Talking

If there is an enduring lesson to come out of this meaningful story, it is not so much in the Freddy Finger campaign itself as it is in the events that led up to it. The Austin Fire Department wouldn’t even have a powerful message if we had not been looking at our performance data and asking some difficult questions about their meaning: “What’s going on here? Why are these people dying?” In fact, it’s been said that any performance data that is not used to inform our decisions on policy, practice and procedure, is useless data. Why collect it if we do not intend to ask questions on its meaning?

Fundamentally, this is the difference between being a learning organization and a reporting one. Anyone can collect data; it’s what we do with it that defines us as an organization. It’s what we do with our data that will empower us to make a difference in the lives of our citizens. And as we all struggle through these difficult economic times – fighting for our lives to protect our services and programs from the budget ax – it is clear that what will separate the winners from the losers is the ability to demonstrate that we are making a difference through concrete performance results.

Those organizations that can tell their story through sound data analysis and performance improvement will carry the day.


Kevin Baum is the assistant fire chief and fire marshal for the City of Austin, TX, Fire Department. A 20-year veteran of the fire service, Baum has pioneered the implementation of performance measures into programs and services that are difficult to quantify and evaluate statistically. His efforts to implement performance measures in the fire service has been recognized around the world as a best-practice model. Baum is an adjunct faculty member of the Texas State University master of public administration program and guest lecturer for the U.S. Certified Public Manager’s Program. Baum holds a bachelor of arts degree in Fire Service Administration from Western Illinois University and a master of public policy and administration degree from Texas State University. He may be contacted at kbaum@austin.rr.com.

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