Wanted: A Great Public Education Officer

Dec. 1, 2004
Having worked in the fire service for many years, all of those years in public education, I found myself recently serving on an oral board. Our unit was in need of some new “Pub Ed” people, and I was privileged to be included in this selection process.

Our department is fortunate to have a fully functioning Public Education Unit. I am aware that smaller departments sometimes rely on individual firefighters or other employees who show a flair and willingness to fill in and perform public education needs. This got me thinking, “What makes the perfect public education officer?” (Your department may call them “specialists,” “technicians,” “officers” or whatever, but for these purposes, they’ll be officers.) Of course, there is no perfect mortal, but if you could create the ideal public education officer, what traits would she or he have? Is there a natural born “Pub Edder”? How would the “specs” read? “Pub Ed Officer wanted, must …”:

Be able to relate to all ages. In our unit, we teach fire and life safety to everyone from 3 years old to very elderly. Whether developmentally disabled or mentally gifted, everyone can learn. We need to have the tools and talent to teach them. It certainly isn’t news that talking to a sulky 14-year-old girl with her nose pierced is vastly different than interacting with a senior citizens club, or contrast a men’s civic group to two classes full of kindergartners (that’s about 60 kids in our county). Any new employee can get thrown in to these situations, but a born “Pub Edder” gets excited and pumped up at the opportunity to teach fire and life safety to these folks. Be “unflappable.” In the real world of public education, equipment malfunctions. It doesn’t just quit, it quits while 300 kids are sitting in a barely controlled calm in assembly. Quick, improvise! Or you pull up to the address on your assignment sheet, and find that the address of your fire safety program is in reality a gas station that closed in 1995. Hey, the kids are waiting somewhere for their fire safety puppet show. What do you do? Or, the teacher that invited you to her classroom has the flu and the poor frazzled substitute had no clue you were coming during her math period, so she can give you 15 minutes instead of 30. In a great public education officer person, the wheels start turning. These are things that happen (I could fill the page with them), but these are “challenges,” not “roadblocks”! Know “when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.” This means, that no matter how clever your programs are, and no matter how witty and charming you are, there will be times when the program just isn’t “gelling.” Make sure you aren’t talking too long (watch for the glazed 1,000-yard stare from your audience). It is much better to get your points in and leave your audience wanting more than to lose their attention. I know public education officers who have a great delivery, a great appearance and a terrific message, but they talk too long. That’s the kiss of death! A good public education officer gets the message out and then gets out. (Useful tip: Schedule senior citizen programs before lunch, not directly after!) Be willing to keep learning. I have worked in this field for over 20 years, and I am thrilled to keep learning more and more about it. It’s easy after so long to fall into resting on your laurels and begin to think you have learned all there is to learn. Wrong! Technology changes. Programs should be changing. Changes are going to happen and they need to be learned and acted upon. Yes, after 10 years, you should know a lot about your subject, but you should also be open and eager to learn more and more. I still learn from my audiences, especially from the seniors who have a lot of life experience to share. Don’t lose sight of the ultimate goal. We were successful in hiring some new public education people for our unit. They are terrific and vary in age from right out of college to gray haired. One of them recently made the statement to me, “I know how important this work is. I am aware every time I come to work that what I convey to the public may save their life some day.” This is not an employee working to make the next payment on her SUV! This is an employee who understands public education and why it is probably one of the most important functions a fire department can have. Here’s hoping your department has a few like this one. Jojy Smith, fire education coordinator with the Contra Costa County, CA, Fire Protection District, is a 23-year member of the fire service. She performs and oversees all areas of public education and developed the Juvenile Firesetter/Intervention Program within the department. Smith has been an instructor on the subject of Juvenile Firesetters and has served as an advisor on several training videos on a national level.

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