Marketing Public Fire Education: A Fire Prevention Success Story

March 1, 2009

Over the past couple of years and, more recently, within the last six months, we have observed a confluence of thought from many fire service organizations. That thought is almost unanimous agreement that the most effective way to diminish the continuing fire problem in the United States is a coordinated, national strategic effort focused on prevention and public education, supported by specific tactics in every neighborhood in the country.

The creation of Vision 20/20 has been one of those forces that contributed to this effort. We are all moving in the same direction in thought and word. Soon, Vision 20/20 will be in a position to move momentum to effective action across our country.

Fire prevention and education is marketing - public service marketing. With the words "marketing effectiveness" in mind, I wanted to report on the progress four years later of the largest public fire education experience in the world, "Where's the Fire?" presented by Liberty Mutual Insurance Group and featured in the Innoventions pavilion at Epcot at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.

Since opening in 2004, Liberty Mutual has used its "Where's the Fire?" experience as an anchor element of its fire-safety outreach. Community programs, offered freely by representatives from 400 local Liberty Mutual offices around the country in cooperation with local fire departments, include materials and lesson plans that mirror the safety messages and teachings that families find at the Epcot exhibit. As a valuable public relations tool Liberty Mutual has used "Where's the Fire?" to work directly with the fire service community.

In 2007, Liberty Mutual filmed a fire safety video that is distributed free of charge to fire departments and schools, and also is available at, Liberty Mutual's online fire safety education site for parents, teachers and firefighters. The film introduction is delivered by Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden, who for two years served as Liberty Mutual's fire safety ambassador. In addition to filming the video, Harden, who tragically lost her niece, nephew and their mother in an apartment fire several years ago, delivered the keynote address at the 2006 Liberty Mutual National Firemark Award presentation at Firehouse Central in Orlando, educates visitors with a series of seasonal fire-safety vignettes, and has appeared on national shows such as "The View" and "The Martha Stewart Show" to promote the website.

In 2006, Liberty Mutual partnered with the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) on a national "Fire Safety Census," exploring Americans' understanding of fire safety facts and their behaviors when it comes to protecting their homes and their families. The results showed that while most people have solid knowledge about the major causes of home fires and the necessity of fire-safety devices in the home, it doesn't translate into behavior.

Since 2005, Liberty Mutual has presented its Firemark Award in both heroic and community service/public education categories. The national award evolved from the 20-plus-year Liberty Mutual Firemark Award program, where local Liberty Mutual offices around the country honor firefighters who exemplify courage and valor. The national winners each receive a $10,000 grant from Liberty Mutual for their firehouse or department and a trip to Walt Disney World. The most recent Firemark Awards were given out at Firehouse Central in 2008 and Firehouse World just last month.

How "Where's the Fire?" Was Created

On Oct. 3, 2004, Epcot opened "Where's the Fire?" - the largest public fire education experience in the country - sponsored by Liberty Mutual in cooperation with the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA). The alliance is a superb example of public service marketing and how a corporate relationship can focus on a public issue. Since opening, millions of people from all over the country and around the world have visited this interactive experience. In one anecdotal case, lessons from the experience saved a group of middle school girls who attended a sleepover when a fire broke out in the house where they were sleeping. One of the girls who visited the experience remembered the fire safety lessons and led the group to safety at a meeting place outside the house.

Walt Disney World Resorts has one of the most enviable safety records on the planet. With millions people visiting annually and thousands of employees, one can imagine how important safety is in all aspects of life at the theme park. Disney's fire safety record is remarkable. With almost 31,000 guest rooms and thousands of buildings, the fire safety codes and procedures are critical. Epcot was Walt Disney's dream of a community of the future. With a mission of "discovery" and "hope for tomorrow" Epcot seemed to be a natural place to offer something educational, yet entertaining to tackle the fire problem.

The challenge was to create an experience that could involve the guest, especially children, in an "attraction" so that the guest would retain the fire prevention message without becoming bored or frightened. Another challenge was to give a public education experience the same attention and dynamism of a firefighting experience.

First, it was necessary to convince senior management at Disney that such a venue could provide guests at Epcot with an interesting and engaging experience. Remember, we approached senior management in California and Florida before 9/11. We pointed out that such an endeavor was in keeping with Disney's four core values: safety, courtesy, show and efficiency. We noted that safety has always been Disney's first value, and fire safety has always been in the forefront.

Many years ago, when Walt Disney World Resort was born, forward-thinking Disney safety professionals made certain that the fire and building codes were the most advanced in the world. This fire safety standard became known as "The Epcot Code." The original code was a model for the country and was eventually adopted by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) as the basic fire and life safety code for the nation: NFPA 5000. In addition to thousands of advanced sprinkler systems and alarm points, Disney has five fully staffed fire stations operating as Reedy Creek Fire and Rescue.

Sponsorship Effort

Well before 9/11, we received the nod to approach potential alliance sponsors to work with us to fund and create the experience. Even with the strength of Disney branding, it was not easy to find a company and organization with the vision and commitment to support such an initiative. After months of dead ends and rejections, we received complete support from a corporation with the values and traditions of safety since its founding in 1912. The founders of Liberty Mutual believed that an insurance company shouldn't just protect its customers when accidents happen, but should work to prevent those accidents from happening in the first place.

The "Where's the Fire?" attraction is an excellent example of mission, vision and flawless execution. Once Liberty Mutual committed to become the sponsor of the experience, Disney Imagineers (the creative group imbued with the legacy of Walt Disney) formed teams to learn and interpret public fire education. The Imagineers visited the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, MD, to meet with USFA public fire educators. They visited the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Rockville, MD, to learn about the chemical components of fire and how fires spread in homes. They visited the "FDNY Fire Zone" in New York City, "Safety Village" in Westminster, MD, and, of course, spent hours with Reedy Creek Fire and Rescue.

Learning Experience

Disney executives decided to create the experience at Epcot because this particular theme park is dedicated to discovery and hope for the future. It is like a world's fair in which guests can learn about things that improve their lives. Disney chose an area of Epcot called Innoventions because this particular experience was going to be something that had never been done before. The team of Imagineers decided to create "the most hazardous home in America" that would have over 300 fire hazards with patented technology for guests to compete in a family game. Families compete for points within a specified time to find all of the hazards. After completing the game, guests go to a small "Play it Safe House" where they are taught how to escape if a fire occurs, not to hide in a closet or under a bed, and to have a meeting place. The meeting place is the back of a Darley pumper specially designed and constructed for attraction. The pumper is in operating order; outfitted with every conceivable piece of equipment for the kids to operate.

Finally, there are three kiosks with "Burning Questions" about fire prevention. The kiosk shows the well-known NIST video of a Christmas tree in a single room from the incipient stage of a fire to flashover. The guests have 45 seconds to complete the questions before the room goes to flashover. Guests are then given the option to take pamphlets, which review all of the fire safety instructions they have learned during the experience.

The story of how the "Where's the Fire?" experience was created may be a unique example of alliance creation, but the process of alliance development between private enterprise and the fire service is in its infancy. Vision, passion, persistence and a clear understanding of mutual benefit can make alliance development one of the most effective initiatives for marketing the fire service - all while protecting the citizens, businesses and institutions it protects.

BEN MAY, a Firehouse® contributing editor, has been developing the discipline of fire and emergency services marketing management for more than 15 years. He has been a firefighter for Montgomery County, MD, Fire and Rescue and fire commissioner for the Woodinville, WA, Fire and Life Safety District. May holds a bachelor's degree in public affairs from the University of Oklahoma and a master's degree in international communication from the American University in Washington, D.C. He has been a vice president of two international marketing firms over the last 25 years, and now is responsible for business development for Epcot at Walt Disney World Resort.

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