Fire Safety Program Educates People Who Need it Most

The Home Safety Council wants to change the way fire departments teach fire safety - and they are offering the resources to do so.

The goal of the Home Safety Literacy Project is to reach out to a demographic that, up until now, has been largely ignored -- adults who read at or below basic English levels. And, according to a 2003 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, about 30 million people in the United States make up that demographic.

"Many who are not strong readers of English are missing important fire safety information," says Home Safety Council President Meri-K Appy.

So, the Council has teamed up with ProLiteracy America, the largest adult literacy organization in the United States, to make sure that it's not just kids who know how to prevent fires - it's their parents, too. They have paired up fire safety instructors with literacy teachers -- enabling adult students to get the safety information that they really need.

Dayna Hilton, an Arkansas Public Fire and Life Safety Educator, is taking part in a pilot version of the Safety Council's program in her home state. She says it's easy for parents who can't read to miss the important safety education that is given to children at school.

"If a parent cannot read, they may just say 'oh, I don't have time now,'" she says. "You've lost that opportunity to educate parents."

"I've really been impressed with the Home Safety Council's foresight into fire safety and how they are always ahead of the curve."

Program Beginnings

Appy says she was struck by the idea to target adults with little or no reading skills about four years ago, when the Home Safety Council was looking a way to put cash awarded through the Assistant to Firefighter's Grant to good use.

"It was important to find a project that wouldn't duplicate what was already out there."

So she thought about the issue of fire education, considering the fact that the United States is becoming more and more multicultural. She wanted to make sure the safety information people in the fire services were distributing was understandable by as many people as it could -- maximizing her goal of keeping people safe by preventing fires.

"I found," she said "that the barrier was often not language, but literacy. People lacking basic literacy."

That was when Appy decided to reach out to ProLiteracy America. The group has trained professionals all over the country who specialize in teaching adults the English language, helping them improve their communication to improve their lives.

Appy told ProLiteracy leaders that they and the fire service had the potential to make a perfect team.

"The profile of someone with low literacy -- low education, low income -- really fits the profile of people who were dying of fires," she said. "I feel like we're trying to reach the same people.

It took some time before the literacy group was completely on-board with the idea. They told Appy that the issue of fire safety had never come up. None of their students ever asked to know more about how fire safety, so they never taught it.

"That's the tragedy of this," Appy told the group. "People of all walks of life don't ask about this until it's too late."

But one phone call to a literacy program in New Mexico changed their minds.

ProLiteracy's Assistant Director of Special Projects Linda Church had decided at random to call the program. She spoke to a teacher and received a sobering response.

"I wish we'd done this ages ago," the teacher told her. "We just lost a family to an apartment fire."

Church said that was all the information she needed.

Since they began their efforts four years ago, the two groups have worked hard, refining and perfecting the materials they use to educate adult students.

How they Did it

They first examined fire education materials that were already being used. She found most of them were aimed at people who read at a sixth grade reading level -- well beyond what illiterate adults would be able to read and understand.

"We wanted to get the materials boiled down to the most essential message and illustrate it so that people get it in a glance."

The result was literature that that is simple to grasp, using simple sentences and pictures to get the message across.

One major fire safety organization also offers information that is geared toward adults. But with their charts, graphs and complex sentences, their message would be lost on someone with rudimentary reading skills. The information offered for families to use together is also on a higher reading level.

In contrast, material from the Home Safety project read like this: "A cigarette is burning. The smoke alarm works. It makes a loud noise."

Just about all of the information is illustrated, so that non-readers can still understand what's going on.

Hickory, N.C Fire Department Educator Terri Byers says her department has been using the program, which teams up a department representative with a literacy expert, for about two years.

"It's one of the easiest programs I've been a part of," she says. "This has given us an avenue to find new people who need our services but don't know about our services."

Byers said the program has created a special bond between her department and her community's non-English speaking members.

"We decided to go a little above and beyond. We did a fire extinguisher class, and a tour of the fire station, which was neat because a lot of people hadn't been to a fire station," she says.

The Future

After several years of intense testing, the program is now in yet another phase. The Home Safety Council is now piloting a program in three states with exceptionally high fire-death rates -- Arkansas, South Carolina and Tennessee. The idea now is to unite fire department educators with literacy providers, so that adults who are learning to read get fire safety information that is precisely tailored to their needs.

"As firefighters, this is just a group...we never thought about," says Tennessee State Fire Marshall Public Information Officer Jeff Huddleson.

Huddleson speaks highly of his department's partnership with the literacy group. "It's been really informative for both of us. The literacy people dealt a little bit with safety but not as intensely as we do. We are both learning from each other and it's wonderful."

"It's overwhelming the help they [the literacy group] are able to provide -- how willing they are to help us get this information out."

Appy wants the program to spread to departments all over the United States. And, she says, although the issue of money is a major concern to many fire departments -- it doesn't have to be with this program.

"The goal of the Home Safety Council is to provide really good tools at no cost, or little cost."

Therefore, the teaching materials are available for just the cost of shipping, or free online.

"They could use them as they use their current materials. It's really a magical partnership when the fire service and literacy community come together," Appy says. A new partnership to help people we've had a hard time reaching.

To learn more about the Home Safety Literacy project, including free downloadable resources, click here for English and here for Spanish.