A Visit with Fire and Life Safety Educator, Michael McLeieer from the Merrimac (MA) Fire Department

One of the ways that I enjoy expanding my knowledge is to visit with other educators from across the country and learn about their fire safety programming.
 
In the fire safety education arena, there is always room to expand our knowledge, which in turn, can help keep our programming from getting “stale.” This knowledge provides ways in which we can reach more of our target audience with the fire safety message, and as a result, help keep those in our community safe.
 
Fifteen year veteran Firefighter Michael McLeieer, Fire and Life Safety Educator from the Merrimac (MA) Fire Department, feels the same way, as do many of the educators out in the field. Michael professes, “I'm still learning as to what works and improving upon what doesn't work.” 
 
I met Michael at the National Fire Academy a couple of years while taking a Juvenile Intervention Specialist course, and was fascinated with his innovation in fire safety education. I recently visited with Michael, and below, you will find his story.  
 
Michael, tell us about yourself and how you got started in fire safety education. 
 
This is my 15th anniversary in the fire service. I was approached by a friend of mine, who was a firefighter; 15 years ago about how many children needlessly die in house fires. He explained to me that children often hide from the smoke and fire when they are scared and don't know what to do.  When I went with this Fire Lieutenant to school presentations, I was amazed when he asked the students "What do you do when your house catches fire?" they would respond with "Stop, Drop and Roll". Children we encountered were not "getting" the real fire safety message.
 
It was at that time that we started a non-profit charity called E.S.C.A.P.E. Inc. (Education Showing Children and Adults Procedures for Evacuations) and built a 27-foot fire safety trailer to use as an interactive educational tool and to mentor and assist fire departments across Michigan in delivering fire and life safety education. I started in the fire service in Michigan in 1995 and in 2000, accepted my current position of Director of Public Education for the Merrimac (MA) Fire Dept. To date E.S.C.A.P.E. has educated over 500,000 children and adults in fire safety and have had 32 documented educational "saves". In my roll as Public Education Officer for Merrimac Fire, we have had four documented “Young Heroes” from 2004 - 2007.
 
Have there been educators that you have looked up to throughout your career?
 
I have had fire department training officers or fire academy instructors who I have looked up to as mentors to me. 
 
How did they influence you?
 
They reminded me to always excel and strive for excellence. They encouraged me to be flexible, yet consistent in the educational approach.
 
Please share with us what resources you utilize in your programming and why you find these resources useful. 
 
A combination of N.F.P.A., The Idea Bank, Sydistar, Disney Productions, and ideas obtained from various training conferences over the past 15 years. I'm still learning as to what works and improving upon what doesn't work.
 
What has been the most challenging aspect of being a fire safety educator
 
Funding, or the lack of consistent funding. With the ups and downs of the economy, we must continue to reach out to our community and other funding partners to meet our goals and objectives of providing quality fire and life safety educational programs.
 
You have a successful program with your canine, Jake. Please tell us more about the project.
 
Jake the fire dog, a black Labrador retriever service canine, is the first service canine to be used exclusively to teach children about fire and life safety. As an English version of the black lab, Jake is more refined and low-key with children than some other breeds. He has his own photo identification, is licensed as a working service animal, and is recognized by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and ADA as a working service canine, with his sole purpose being public education, since dogs could be used as agents of terrorism. 
 
In April 2007, Scott D. Maker and I became handlers of Jake and added him to our non-profit public charity, E.S.C.A.P.E. Inc. (Education Showing Children and Adults Procedures for Evacuations). 
 
As Jake’s primary handler and trainer, Scott spends two hours each day teaching Jake how to act out
messages such as "crawl low under smoke", "get out and stay out", and "stop, drop and roll."  Jake  teaches children about fire and life safety in both the Great Lakes and New England regions including Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. Our goal of teaching children in these regions is to be proactive rather than reactive. We work with area fire departments and go into schools and daycare centers, utilizing our own customized age appropriate lesson plans, to teach and reinforce these positive messages. Jake is just one way to teach those messages, but his presence has helped the educational community to welcome the program with open arms. 
 
In the winter months, the lessons include ice and cold water safety, such as never venturing onto thin ice. In the spring, students learn about topics like bicycle helmet safety and stranger danger. Jake is also used to teach children never to go up to a strange animal without adult supervision. 
 
Jake has learned to demonstrate making the "right choice", such as not hiding under a bed if there is fire or smoke conditions (applicable for younger children) and not using tobacco products that could result in fires (for older children). 
 
Jake will be able to work as a service dog until he is 10 to 12 years old, when typical hip and joint problems will likely interfere with his demonstrations. 
 
We will continue to utilize Jake in assisting to deliver our fire and life safety and juvenile firesetter intervention programs, including reaching out to audiences with disabilities, such as autism and hearing impairments. Jake has even learned sign language commands so he is able to reach out to more target groups. 
 
In addition, Jake demonstrates the following messages:
  • Fall and crawl under smoke
  • Get out and stay out
  • Whisper (inside voice vs. outside voice)
  • How to be a helper
  • How to stretch before exercising
  • Know two ways out
  • Stop, drop and roll
  • What is a tool and what is a toy
  • Waive to his audiences on command
  • Sit, speak, whisper, and stay - following sign language commands
What tips or resources can you provide for fire and life safety educators that have limited or no budgets? 
 
Start building rapport within your community. Visit the service clubs (i.e. Rotary, Moose, Elks, Mason, etc.) and partner with your local banker, local big box stores, anyone and everyone where you can convince them that their investment is necessary to keeping the community safe. Apply for grants. There are a lot of them out there, but anything worth while takes WORK. Don't be afraid to work to spread the word about your department's financial needs. Utilize the media to help get the word out to the community.
 
If you could share one tip with a fire safety educator just getting their feet wet in fire safety education, what would it be? 
 
Partner with another seasoned Fire and Life Safety Educator. Learn from peers to avoid making the same mistakes many of us did when we first started out. Make sure the subject matter is familiar to the educator (don't shoot from the hip) and reach out to School Educators or take an early childhood development class...go where the teachers go to learn...a community college.
 

What are some of your favorite fire safety related sites on the web? 
 
Rescue 1 Fire Safety for Kids. Jeff Steere is the President and a career firefighter with the City of Grand Rapids Michigan Fire Department. Jeff and I have become friends and have teamed up together with our two non-profit charities to reach out to more communities and mentor more fire departments within Michigan and across the country.  In fact, our two charities where just recently nominated for the second year in a row as a semi-finalist for the 2010 Connecting with Community Award in Michigan.  The award ceremony will be held on May 13th 2010 at the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids Michigan.


 
Where do you see fire safety education in ten years?

 
It will remain a high priority for the U.S. Fire Administration and should be a key focus for the fire service. Education and enforcement of fire and building codes will continue to save lives. The fire service is being asked to do more, with less and less funding, and staffing, and quality fire and life safety education will be the best way for the fire service to continue to be proactive, vs. reactive; preventing fires before they start through education.


 
Any last thoughts?
 

 
New or seasoned fire service professionals need to remain committed to their passion and this should include education. It's not somebody else's job. It's every firefighter's job to educate and re-educate the public! Especially during tough fiscal times, administration may or will cut or eliminate fire and life safety education, but by keeping good records and proving what we are doing is working (i.e. a reduction in fires, reduction in property loss, reduction in loss of life, etc.), we will be able to argue our case and justify our needs and existence to the elected officials. I never thought I would become adjunct faculty and teaching for the National Fire Academy when I entered the fire service 15 years ago. As Dr. Denis Onieal, NFA Superintendant, told me after I was approached to become an instructor for NFA, "You will change America, here's your opportunity" and I try to do that with every class I teach and every firefighter I have the pleasure and honor in meeting. We ALL have the ability to rise above the financial crisis and should not become easily discouraged. It's up to us to make a difference and change behavior both within the fire service, and among the general public.
 

To learn more about Michael's fire safety programming, please contact him at 978-346-4731 or michael.mcLeieer@merrimacfire.com. 

 

 

 

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