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."
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.