Public Safety Education & the Residential Occupancy Fire - Part 3

March 1, 2008

The first two installments in this series on America's biggest fire problem — fires in residential occupancies — addressed ways to develop an effective and comprehensive "fire safety" program, particularly for young children. This column will address how older children and adults can be educated about fire safety.

Middle school and high school — this is an important age group. These students are the babysitters and often the oldest ones at home looking after younger siblings. While this age can be intimidating to a fire safety educator, because at this stage firefighters and fire trucks have largely lost their glimmer, it is an age group in which a long-term impression can still be made. This is the age at which we introduce and conduct true fire prevention and fire extinguisher training. We get them involved by not only having them physically demonstrate the skills needed, but also the mental educational process needed to reinforce it.

Lecture alone often will not make the biggest impact. Remember, this is the age that they feel invincible and believe that bad things cannot happen to them. Therefore, our presentation shows them that fire can, and will, affect their lives and why fire safety knowledge is important. We also stress that their younger siblings are counting on them for protection and to know what to do should a fire occur.

We use statistics and local newspaper articles to discuss fires, the leading causes of fires locally and nationally, and fire injuries and deaths. Using a guided discussion format after the initial presentation, the students will then come to their own conclusion as to why a fire started, why there was an injury or death, and what could have been done to prevent it. By doing this, they are analyzing current real-life information and using it to make appropriate fire safety decisions on their own. If there are students in the class who have experienced a fire, encourage them to discuss the events. Peer groups are very important to the learning process at this age.

We also read articles concerning firefighter deaths and how fires affect the entire community. We ask the students thought-provoking questions like, "Is there such a thing as an accidental fire?" "Are fires accidents or negligence, and should people be held accountable for the damages and community costs?" "How would you feel if a firefighter is injured at a fire at your house because you left a pot on the stove?" We discuss how other countries view fires. This type of discussion gets them thinking, talking and debating fire safety. It also helps them to realize the effects of unsafe practices not just on their lives, but the lives of others, and their responsibility to be fire safe.

While there are several academic courses in the middle school that offer an opportunity to reach this group, the middle school in Beaufort, SC, has an enrichment program that lets members of the community teach their skills, talents and professions. The Beaufort Fire Department teaches a Youth Academy twice a week for 45 minutes each quarter. The students attend a miniature academy and learn fire science and firefighting, see and use our gear, and learn and apply equipment and tactics. The course culminates in a real search-and-rescue scenario. This hands-on program lets the students learn about the dynamics of fire and firefighting, see how it applies to their lives right now, and learn about the hazards of fire and how to prevent it and survive it. It also gives them the confidence to be able to help others.

Teaching Adults

With an adult audience we have an automatic barrier to overcome from the second we step in front of them — they don't believe that they need to sit through our presentation. Adults often feel that they know all there is to know about fire safety, and that belief must be challenged from the start in order for a presentation to be effective. A student must be prepared to learn in order for learning to take place; and we call this an "attention gainer." Our "attention gainer" is a verbal interaction with the members of our audience, to draw out from them how they feel about their own fire safety, and then directly challenge that comfort zone with statistics, both local and national. We discuss recent fires (maintaining privacy) and discuss causes. The exchange is on a peer level, from one concerned adult to another, from one concerned parent to another. But just like our middle school programs, these adults need to feel like they are taking an active part in their education, not being lectured.

We use video to stress important points. One, "The Living Room Fire" produced by Underwriters Laboratory, shows a small fire starting in a waste basket that progresses and engulfs a living room. A digital timer in the lower corner shows this occurred in just 2½ minutes. This video challenges the adults' false sense of security about the dynamics of fire and their safety. Most effectively, the smoke detector in the video sounds at 1:55, only 35 seconds from flashover, demonstrating to the adults that they may only have 35 seconds to escape their home when a detector sounds (depending on placement). We leave the video paused at the flashover screen for the remainder of the presentation and refer the audience's attention back to it throughout the presentation as a reminder of how fast and deadly fire can be.

The remainder of the presentation is visual with extension cords melting from being overloaded, power strips with circuit breakers, pans, kitchen mitts, fire extinguishers and heaters, letting the audience get a hands-on as well as visual education about danger areas in their homes. We also show them photos of past fires in their community that were caused by the improper use of these items. We talk about the importance of sleeping with bedroom doors closed, and how to effectively teach their children about fire drills in the home, and what to do if they have a child too young or unable to comprehend the skills of such fire drill.

If they are parents, we challenge their beliefs about their fire safety through the security of their children. An "attention-gainer" tactic is to ask leading questions such as, "Do you think it is important for your children to do fire drills at school? Why?" "Where are your children during the deadliest hours for fire, 10 P.M. to 6 P.M.? Who is responsible for them then?" "Do you have your children exit the home during false smoke detector activations while cooking? Then what do you think they will do at 2 A.M. when there is a real fire and they hear the detector?" as you point to the flashover video. Asking these questions will assist the adults in realizing their need to consider fire safety at home through their own words.

Older Adults

Older adults require a different approach, as most realize their growing limitations and the need to consider personal safety. "Shock and awe" tactics may not be needed with this age group and, in fact, may be counterproductive. What is needed for this age group is some personal-touch customer service.

This group is very sensitive to age relations and independence. Any attempt to lecture to them or talk to them in a manner that does not acknowledge their experienced position in society will not produce the best results. Just displaying your desire to ensure their safety and your department's genuine concern for their well being will go a long way in not only public education, but also public relations.

The Beaufort Fire Department makes it a point to attend every "older-adult" event we are invited to, from organizational breakfasts and dinners to assisting them with "Christmas in July" programs to blood pressure checks. This constant contact and personal connection has been the key for us to effectively deliver our message. Talking about the importance of smoke detectors while sitting down to dinner with a table of "older adults" is just as effective, and many times more so, than an official presentation. Of all our programs, I have found our "older adult" programs to be the most enjoyable and the most rewarding.

We also maintain a smoke detector and fire extinguisher program in which we issue and install both free of charge. As part of our program, we call these same people once a year and offer to check the batteries and fire extinguisher to make sure they are still operational. This lets us go to their homes and talk to them about fire safety; sometimes, we make on-the-spot corrections, with permission. During one such a visit, firefighters noted two recently purchased heavy-duty portable space heaters. The heaters, designed to be placed on hardwood floors, were on the carpet. Upon further investigation, the firefighters found that the heaters had begun to singe the carpet. In yet another situation, an open gallon of kerosene was found next to a running kerosene heater.


There are many ways to evaluate your programs, but the best method we have found is to ask the former students questions when you see them again. Parents, often directed by their children, will point us out and track us down when they see us out in the community. When this happens we simply ask, "What do you remember the most?" The answers to this simple question will tell you volumes about what in your program or presentation is making the biggest impact. Children will often remember crawling below the smoke, throwing the stuffed animal out the window at the firefighter and sleeping with their bedroom doors closed. Adults remember the video the most, how quickly the fire grew and how little time they to get out, as well as the importance of having their children sleep with bedroom doors closed.

With our concentrated fire prevention efforts, our knowledge of fire dynamics, and with new building materials and codes, we can offer our citizens today the best in fire protection. But with over 78% of all fires, and over 80% of all fire deaths, occurring in residential occupancies, this should be an area of obvious concern and a need of our concentrated fire prevention efforts. Education and training is the key to reducing these numbers, and as a fire service, we need to look hard at what we are doing and how we are doing it.

To conduct successful fire prevention education, we must be aggressive, creative, constant, personal and active. We must go beyond the banners, displays, videos and handouts, and train our audience by having them perform the skills they will need to prevent and survive fire — just as we train our firefighters to suppress them. By doing this successfully, we can get the residential occupancy on the same statistical decline as other fire categories, and truly fulfill our fire service mission.

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

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