A Visit with Captain Peggy Harrell, Fire Safety Education Coorinator from the Plano (TX) Fire Department

Thank you to everyone who contacted me regarding the Fire Safety Traveling Trunk information on my last Playing it Safe blog post. If you currently utilize a fire safety traveling trunk, I would love to hear from you!
 
This month on the Playing Safe Blog, we are featuring Captain Peggy Harrell, Fire Safety Education Coordinator from the Plano Fire Department (TX). Peggy and I met at the National Fire Academy several years ago when I was starting my fire safety education career. She is one of the most dynamic educators that I know! Sharing program ideas and resources is a great way to help your fire safety program grow and Peggy has some amazing tips and information to share with Playing it Safe.
 
Peggy, tell us about yourself and how you got started in fire safety education.
 
I love to tell this story… I was actually teaching Deaf children and children with hearing-impairments for the Plano Independent School District. While I really enjoyed teaching, all the paperwork required for special needs classes was the only drawback. The Plano Fire Department had a brand new position posted for a fire safety educator and they were looking for someone with a background in education. My sister (a teacher also) was told about the position by a friend who thought my sister would qualify but she had just had her second child and was not interested in the work hours. She told me about the posting and I tossed the idea around and decided to throw my hat into the ring. I was very relaxed at my first interview, knowing that I had a great job teaching but once I knew what exciting things the job would entail, I was much more interested in the job. I was much more nervous for my second interview!
 
Have there been educators that you have looked up to throughout your career? How did they influence you?
 
The fire chief who hired me, Bill Peterson, and his assistant chief, Kirk Owen had already established a very progressive focus and belief within the Plano Fire Department that fire and life safety education was a very high priority. Without their support, I doubt the efforts I have made the last 15 years would have been as successful. Outside my department, I look to educators like Mary Marchone, Meri-K Appy and Peg Carson and thank them for the work they have been doing to bring fire and life safety “up the ranks” in the fire service.
 
Please share with us what resources you utilize in your programming and why you find these resources useful.
 
The National Fire Protection Association’s Learn Not to Burn, Risk Watch™ and Remembering When™ are great products to use and build the basis of your programming. Each can be adapted to a specific department’s and community’s needs. They do cost, however, and in these times more and more departments must evaluate their purchases with more scrutiny and more are looking for free and lower-costing quality products. I think this is where the Home Safety Council has filled the need. They have such wonderful and effective programs that are most often free, if not very inexpensive. 
 
No program or product is going to be effective if it sits on a shelf. I try to get my hands on anything I am interested in before I buy it. I borrow or try to get a trial look at something before investing money in it. I also talk to people using it to see what they think. Most other educators are excited to tell you about success they have had with a program or product.  
 
What has been the most challenging aspect of being a fire safety educator?
 
At the top of the list of my challenges is time. When I was single I thought nothing of working late and on the weekends. Since I became married, I find that I struggle between wanting to dedicate time to something and wanting to spend time with my husband. Luckily, he is a Battalion Chief with our department so he does understand my dedication to the job. 
 
The second challenging aspect is the complacency I sometimes see in both fire personnel and with the public concerning prevention. It is understandable sometimes with the public. If someone has never been impacted by a fire or other traumatic event, they will have the “never to me” attitude and that can be changed with effective education. The fire service, however, has no reason, in my opinion, not to see prevention and education as the most vital aspect of the fire service. If education can prevent bad things from happening, why not put a large, if not your largest, part of your efforts into preventing these bad things? These bad things cause death, injury and dollar loss!
 
You have a successful Citizen's Fire Academy. Please tell us more about the project.
 
Our Citizens Fire Academy (CFA) was started back in 1995 by Chief Bill Peterson. He had heard about one or two other programs in the US and really thought the idea was a good one. Peterson is VERY customer service-oriented and community-minded. Our CFA is a ten-week course offered in the spring and the fall. We meet one night a week, usually Thursday, for three hours, usually 6:30 to 9:30 pm. Most classes are held in our large training room in our Fire Administration Building. Classes are two-part; a lecture presentation from an “expert” on the night’s topic and then some sort of hands-on activity. 
 
We allow people who either live or work in the city of Plano to participate in the CFA. They must be at least 18 years of age and pass a criminal background check. We do allow the participants to spend time at the fire stations during the ten weeks to ride with the crews to emergency calls. We think it is important for them to interact and get to know the station personnel to get a true understanding of the Plano Fire Department. Ten weeks of listening only to presenters would be very one-dimensional.
 
We also include one Saturday toward the end of the course that is an “Activity Day.” We get the participants into bunker gear and with the help of an engine crew, let them handle the Holmatro tools to conduct a mock vehicle extrication. We also set the 105 foot aerial and let the brave ones climb it. The big draw, however, is that they are allowed to drive one of our engines on a secure course! The day ends with a CareFlite helicopter landing and a lunch provided by our alumni organization. The grilled burgers and hotdogs after all that fun are delicious!
 
Our CFA has been the most wonderful program for the Plano Fire Department. I truly cannot think of one aspect of it that has not benefitted us in so many ways. Our graduates leave the course with such a good understanding of how the department is organized, how it operates and where a big chunk of their tax dollars go…and are used wisely!
 
What tips or resources can you provide for fire and life safety educators that have limited or no budgets?
 
Beg, borrow and network! Join any group in your area of people with like interests in protecting and keeping people safe. There are some great e-groups to join that share resources and information on fire and life safety. Check with your State Fire Marshal or any large city fire department’s fire marshal or safety educator about these. RUN to your computer and join the Expert Network with the Home Safety Council. Get out there and talk to people who can guide you in your quest.
 
If you could share one tip with a fire safety educator just getting their feet wet in fire safety education, what would it be? 
 
Don’t chase rabbits. Don’t put a lot of time and effort into a program that aims to reduce a risk you don’t have. Evaluate YOUR community’s risks and the stats on fires and how they are starting. Focus on the rabbits in front of you and don’t buy into a program just because it worked for someone else.
 
What are some of your favorite fire safety related sites on the web?
 
Well, anything that Sparkles and you are a part of is always something worth visiting! The Home Safety Council’s site is great too!
 
Where do you see fire safety education in ten years?
 
I know where I HOPE to see it…at the forefront of the fire service with support from every fire chief and government official! I do think technology and engineering strides in the next ten years will help reduce some of our fire injuries and deaths through engineering.
 
Any last thoughts?
 
I want to say something profound, but will have to credit Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm with one of my favorite quotes. “Sometimes leadership is planting trees under whose shade you’ll never sit.” I love the hope it implies about the work one can do as a leader in an area.
 
My other favorite quote is from Reverend Theodore Hesburgh. “You have to have a vision. It’s got to be a vision you can articulate clearly and forcefully. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.” That’s the thing about fire safety educators. Most of us are in this arena not because we don’t have other options. We have visions. We have a vision and if we all blow our trumpets with certainty people will listen and change can occur!
 
Thank you, Peggy, for sharing information about your program and providing value tips!
 
To learn more about Peggy's fire safety programming, please contact her at 972-941-7421 or peggha@plano.gov
 

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