Education Works!

Nov. 15, 2006
As you survey the situation before you, it might strike you as odd that these workers would consider a partially destroyed house and a traumatized group of onlookers a "great job."

Public fire and life safety programs are often viewed as the white elephants of the fire service. But this need not be the case. Through the proper approach, implementation, and follow-through, irrefutable success (or failure) can be shown in educational programs.


The concepts of fire prevention are truly the essence of the fire service although this is less than obvious when looking at staffing and budget distribution. If you don't believe this, consider the following scenario.

Imagine that you have stepped onto planet Earth for the first time today. As you stroll down Main Street USA, you notice a thick, dark column of smoke boiling skyward. As you round the corner, a house engulfed in flames stands before you. It is surrounded by a frenzy of activity. One group appears to be workers. They are clad in bulky clothing and wear colored domes on their heads. The remainder appear to be onlookers. They are dressed in thin clothing and simply stand and stare at the spectacle before them. As the fire and smoke start to die off, the workers begin to pick up their tools. Many onlookers move on but a small group remains huddled together, their eyes wide and their mouths open. The workers offer brief words to the onlookers but continue with their work. As the workers climb onto their large, red vehicles and prepare to leave, one is overheard saying to another, "We did a great job here today." Then they drive away.

As you survey the situation before you, it might strike you as odd that these workers would consider a partially destroyed house and a traumatized group of onlookers a "great job." It might even occur to you that a "great job" would have been the prevention of this tragedy before it began.

The Essence of Prevention

Just as the management of an emergency scene requires a strategic approach, so does a prevention program. The beginning of a successful project requires the assembly of the resources to do the job properly and completely. A team of people with the essential skills is critical and only with these resources can an idea be generated, implemented, documented, and evaluated in a useful manner. Each step is critical and the absence of any will be reflected in the final product.

Just as training, experience, and preparation are needed to bring an incident to a successful conclusion, the same characteristics will prove valuable for prevention programs. If one expects to prove their work valuable, the development of a clear and quantifiable goal coupled with methods to document and evaluate the effort is paramount.

To avoid the trap of addressing too many topics at one time, break the prevention project down into manageable segments. Probably the best way to do this is through that age old approach that is continually hammered into your head in every planning class you will ever see - the five step planning process; identification, analysis, design, implementation, and evaluation.

Identification is often self evident. But be careful to see the problem, not just the symptom. Are people dying because smoke alarms aren't working or are they dying because they are not taking care of their smoke alarms? The solution to each will be different.

Consider all aspects of a theme like "Get Out, Stay Out!" In order to get out of a building that is on fire, a person must first be alerted to that fire. This involves a working smoke alarm. Avoiding the inhalation of smoke is another important aspect of escape. The behavior of crawling low under smoke now becomes critical. Once outside the structure, the person must move to their safe meeting place. Once all inhabitants are safely out (or known to have not made it out), someone can be sent to call for help.

Which of these messages is most critical? Will your prevention program pick one or try to deliver multiple messages, possibly overloading the audience? Will the effort educate or confuse?

The situation outlined above can be avoided through the development of a clear and concise mission statement. Without a mission statement, your efforts may eventually drift away from your original plan as other outside forces influence the program. A good mission statement stems from clear identification of the problem to be solved and serves as a reference point from which all work should extend.

The analysis of the problem will provide the details necessary to "sell" the concept to others (administration, funders, community partners, etc.). If this is in fact a problem, supporting data and the range of alternatives will present themselves when the problem is researched.

With all of the analyzed facts in place, it is now time to design the program. The most difficult part of design is the "translation" process. Translation means designing the program so it can be understood by those decision-makers that will decide its eventual fate. This includes the presentation and any accompanying documentation. The most well thought out and designed programs have died a swift death because they were not understood by the key decision-makers.

Implementation is the culmination of the previously laid groundwork. In a perfect world, the program now comes together exactly as planned. In our imperfect world, something always happens differently. Do not let these obstacles alter your eventual arrival at your destination. Adjust the plan and learn. Even if the program fails, use it to your advantage. Failure should be considered nothing less than "limited success" since it can provide valuable information that will help you overcome similar problems in the future.

Evaluation is the most critical and most often overlooked aspect of a program or project. It can be very difficult to motivate yourself to evaluate a project that was successfully completed and is now a past memory. In today's demanding fiscal climate, it becomes imperative that proof of effective programming be evident.

Evaluation should answer the question posed by the mission statement. To help put it in the language of the administration, consider these measures of success:

  • Loss Reduction - This means that something that was lost prior to the program or project is no longer being lost. This might be dollars or lives lost to fire, time lost to repetitive or unnecessary work, or materials lost to careless practices.
  • Risk Reduction - This means reducing the risk of similar occurrences in the future. By saturating an area that has experienced a high fire death rate with working smoke alarms, the risk of future deaths may be reduced. By showing that parental behavior with matches and lighters has changed, the risk of child fireplay can be reduced through both parental modeling and access/supervision issues. These may also accompany loss reduction.
  • Educational Gain - This means showing that the audience has learned what was taught. Pre and post testing are two of the best ways to show that information has been imparted upon another. But be careful, just because someone has learned their lesson does not mean that they have changed their behavior. Educational gain is not synonymous with behavior change.

With each successful effort, the next becomes that much easier. While the rules to success will differ from agency to agency, familiarity with the process of your agency will help immensely. Learn to play the game by the bureaucratic rules and shift the odds to your favor. It becomes a matter of thinking like those with which you must ally. It becomes a matter of using the strategy of Preventhink.

Don Porth began working in the fire service in 1980 as a volunteer and student firefighter. Hired to the Salem, OR, Fire Department in 1983, he spent one year there before taking a job with Portland, OR, Fire & Rescue in 1984. Don was promoted into the Prevention Division in 1990 and assigned to Public Education. Along with managing the youth firesetting intervention program for almost 8 years, he also supervised the unit for 8 years.

Currently, Don oversees the Safety Learning Center & Fire Museum for PF&R. In his spare time, Don has served as President of SOS FIRES: Youth Intervention Programs since 1996. This is a position that Don feels has served an important purpose nationally and continues to be a positive influence to the youth firesetting field. Don has been married since 1984 and has two sons that fill his family time.

About SOS FIRES:Youth Intervention Programs is a non-profit organization committed to advocacy and intervention of youth firesetting behaviors. SOS FIRES provides consulting, training, research, and other support services across North America. For more information, visit the SOS FIRES website at

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