Journal Staff Writer

JOHNSTON -- Fire Chief Victor Cipriano says a new federal grant worth nearly $50,000 will help the town fight fires before they ever start.

The grant, from the U.S. Fire Administration, will allow the town to beef up its fire education and prevention program, something Cipriano said he's been keen to do.

"Fire education is the best thing for fire prevention," he said. "If people are aware, they're less likely to get into trouble."

Cipriano said the grant will be used to purchase educational materials and equipment, including a fire education trailer that firefighters could haul around to schools and senior centers and residence facilities.

The trailer is about the size of a camper, the chief said, and would be pulled by a pickup truck.

It will cost about $30,000, he said.

Firefighters will give fire safety seminars inside the trailer, and it will probably house a new library of fire education materials, including videos and booklets.

Besides serving Johnston residents, Cipriano said, the trailer could be loaned to surrounding communities.

The grant, announced by the USFA this month, will also probably purchase something specifically for children: a talking fire hydrant.

A what?

Yes, Cipriano said, you heard right.

"It's an animated fire plug, a robot that talks to the kids," he said.

Cipriano said the chatty plug would be the Fire Department's equivalent of McGruff the crime dog, whose famous line, "Take a bite out of crime" -- repeated for years in an advertising campaign -- helped spread the word about crime prevention.

It might seem weird, admitted Cipriano, but "Sometimes with the youngest kids, you can teach them better with a prop."

Johnston was just one of 14 Rhode Island communities to get USFA grants this year.

As part of the new Department of Homeland Security, the USFA has given more than $1 million to Rhode Island departments.

Johnston received a USFA grant last year for about $60,000, which bought training materials, videos and other equipment, and an accountability tracking device, an electronic gadget that Cipriano said is to "keep track of the men, so we know exactly where everybody is during a call."

The chief said he sees the grants as a welcome shift in federal policy toward fire departments.

"For years, the fire service never received any grants. It was all geared toward the police," he said. "After 9/11, you've got all kinds of grants coming out. I'm happy to see that they're starting to gear toward the fire service now."

He said the town will have to contribute about 10 percent of the value of this year's grant to receive the entire amount. But Cipriano said his department plans for grants early in the budget process.

Cipriano also said he's had help writing grants from Firefighter Michelle Legault.

"She's really geared up the fire prevention for us pretty good," the chief said. "We were lacking in that area."

Cipriano said he hoped the grant is one of the first steps in a plan to create a full-time fire education position within the department.