Public Safety Education & the Residential Occupancy Fire - Part 2

Feb. 1, 2008

Last month's column asked whether we in the fire service are doing everything we can to raise awareness of America's biggest fire problem -- fires in residential occupancies. While fires in several categories are down, overall fires in residential occupancies are increasing, and that's where the most fire deaths are occurring. We cannot rely on codes and ordinances to affect these numbers; the only way to bring our residential fires in the same downward spiral as other categories is public education and more importantly â fire safety training. These are areas that, statistically speaking, we have been failing in.

Once again, to have an effective "fire safety" program, you have to look at who your department is talking to and how you are delivering your message. Are you conducting fire safety awareness, fire safety training or conducting the whole fire prevention package? For example, targeting children, while important, may not be effective if your intent is "fire prevention," as skills aimed at children focus mainly on fire survival. Videotapes, coloring books, banners and displays are great awareness tools and are useful in any program, but not the best educational or training tools. In order to achieve a true education and obtain that 90% student retention range, your audience needs to get hands on in the lessons you are trying to teach -- they need to train. To have an effective and comprehensive "fire safety" program, you should look at the whole spectrum of ages and programs and what you are doing and how you are doing it.

There are many effective programs across the U.S., but what we have been lacking is a medium in which to share these programs, as well as all the successes and failures. Here at the Beaufort, SC, Fire Department, through trial and error, we have developed a few programs that have been successful in not only delivering our fire prevention messages, but also promoting our fire department within our community. They are simple, relatively inexpensive and involve only a little commitment, but hopefully these ideas and tips will assist your department in adding to what you are already doing to make your fire safety programs more dynamic and maximize the educational value.

Delivering Your Message

The Beaufort Fire Department has been fortunate to have been awarded a Homeland Security Assistance to Firefighters grant to purchase a fire safety education house. While you do not need such a house to conduct effective fire safety programs, it is an amazing tool. No matter how many times people have been through our safety house, they are excited to do it again and to tell all their friends about their experience. This tool itself has been the catalyst of many of our repeat performances to all age groups and is totally interactive, which also accomplishes our fire safety training goals.

We divided our programs into four main groups: Day Care, Pre-Kindergarten, Kindergarten and Elementary Schools. The younger they are, the easier it is easy to captivate them! Talking alone may solicit appropriate answers from your young students when questioned, but do not be fooled to think that it means they have retained or comprehended what it is you are trying to teach. Children repeat everything they hear, and are whizzes at retaining rhymes, but do they really understand the message you are trying to deliver, and can they perform the skills necessary to survive a fire?

These age groups should be targeted with introductory "fire survival" training -- what to do once a fire has occurred -- and should not be added into your "fire prevention" numbers. These youngsters do not have much control over fire prevention issues, which is why it is important to reach out to parents as well. At the Beaufort Fire Department, we begin discussing fire prevention at grade five with cooking safety, as many at this age have started cooking for themselves and their younger siblings, and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports support that by showing that cooking fires increase starting at age 10.

The first step in educating this group is to develop a rapport with them. I often go to the movies and watch a kids movie such as "Cars," or watch the latest "SpongeBob SquarePants" cartoon. I begin by talking about the movie or acting out a scene in the show to get things going. Once they see you are versed in "SpongeBob" or the latest box-office hit, they now see you on their level, and you have a common ground with them that they can identify with and they will instantly bond with you. This also brings some of those quiet, apprehensive children out from the corners and into your program. I have also purchased stuffed-animal characters from these shows and will show them while asking the children questions like; "Who has seen this movie or show," and "What was you favorite part or favorite character?"

We start off early with these children, and we try to reach these students at the day-care level, before elementary school, with a program we call "1st Impressions -- Lasting Impressions." It is a four-day program, 30 minutes per day, designed to introduce firefighters to the children through fun interaction and playing games to develop their skills such as "Stop-Drop-Roll," and finishing with the "Friendly Firefighter," where they can see a real firefighter get dressed up step-by-step in bunker gear and touch the equipment.

We also introduce smoke detectors where the children will recite the following in cadence with the detector; (beep) "GET," (beep) "OUT-OF," (beep) "THE-HOUSE," as we get up and walk to the door, feel it for heat and then go to the window. We talk about "What's hot, what's not," in their house by showing items such as irons and curling irons, and "Tools and Toys," for matches and lighter safety. We send flyers home each day to inform parents that the fire department was at the school or day-care center talking to their children, what we talked about and what the parent should do to continue that education at home. By the time the children enter elementary school, when a firefighter walks into the classroom, we are familiar to them and they are excited to see us, it's like seeing an old friend, and the student is now ready to learn.

With the elementary school children, again it's not just lecture, we get them up and get them training. While we use our safety house for presenting our fire safety material to them, an effective presentation can be done anywhere with creativity. For example, during our presentations, we sound a smoke detector and get the class up on their feet, feel a door for heat and then go to a window. We discuss not only what to do if the door is hot, but what to do if it is cold (open the door slowly and sniff, if you see or smell smoke, shut the door and go to the window). We have them crawl beneath the smoke, such as training smoke or a blanket, and we have them look out the window and find a suitable meeting place. A firefighter is also outside the window looking in at the children making funny faces to demonstrate that firefighters can readily see them through windows.

We throw a stuffed animal out of the window at the firefighter to demonstrate what they should do if they are on a second floor to signal for help. Doing this demonstration is a big hit and the children think it is hilarious. Of all the things we discuss, the children remember "throwing a stuffed animal at a firefighter" first, and with the most enthusiasm. More importantly, it drives home the point of going to a window for help if they cannot go out another way and how to summon help.

We also combine this demonstration with having one of the children hide in a closet or under a table to demonstrate that if they hide, they cannot be seen by the firefighter at the window and firefighters can't help them. Often, we will leave the teacher or student behind, and when at the meeting place doing a head count, the children will shout that someone is missing, and we use this to emphasize not going back inside and the importance for everyone to meet at the meeting place. The firefighter then goes back inside to "rescue" the individual left behind to the applause of the children. I assign the students homework, which the teachers are encouraged to reinforce. The first assignment is to make sure they have a working smoke detector outside their bedroom; the second assignment is to find their family meeting place.

The main focus with this program is to have them demonstrate, not just repeat. While rhymes, catchy phrases and banners serve a valuable purpose, skills are retained more effectively when reinforced with action. Teachers are also encouraged to check the students "homework" the next day.

My next column will address how older children and adults can be educated about fire safety.

For more from Dan Byrne and articles on fire prevention and life safety education, visit's "In The Community" section at

DANIEL BYRNE is a lieutenant and the fire marshal for the Beaufort, SC, Fire Department, where he has served the past 10 years. A 20-year veteran of the emergency services, he is a National Fire Academy alumnus and a volunteer paramedic with Beaufort County EMS. A U.S. Marine veteran of the Desert Shield/Storm War, he is a technical sergeant with the Georgia Air National Guard, serving in the Fire Protection Division airport crash crew. He can be reached at [email protected].

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