Fire Prevention Is a Year-Round Priority

March 1, 2015
Josh Waldo offers four tips to establish successful year-round fire prevention efforts.

As you know, October is Fire Prevention Month. During that month, I hope that all fire departments are able to reach out to their communities and educate them on best practices in fire prevention. Undoubtedly, most fire departments across the country visit local schools and daycare facilities to talk to kids about fire prevention and safety. While our efforts are commendable, we must continue to connect with our communities through year-round education and training programs.

As public educators, we have a responsibility to talk with our residents about what we can do to prevent fires, reduce injuries and save lives. Whether we are formally addressing an audience at a scheduled event or talking with someone in passing, we must take advantage of each opportunity to educate our communities. While we often assist folks with smoke alarms, home escape plans and sprinkler systems, we also need to assist with less common assignments. Being able to adapt to varying situations is critical to the success of our fire departments.

To be successful, we also need to be good communicators, knowledgeable and principled in carrying out our duties as professional fire prevention officers. Good communication means that we must be good listeners. We should also be passionate about the professional public services that we provide to our communities. Success may require not only a change in the mindset of members, but likely a change in organizational culture.

Recommendations on establishing or maintaining successful fire prevention programs are:

1. Good communication. Many fire departments assign fire prevention talks or interactions with the public to a rookie firefighter with minimal consideration of the rookie’s experience. Regardless of whether the rookie is knowledgeable and/or has good communication skills, nerves may still be problematic. Further, sending a rookie firefighter out in the field to educate the public may also send a message to other employees that fire prevention is less important than other “entry-level” duties.

You have only one chance to make a great first impression, so you should send the best person for the job. If the company officer is the best speaker in the group, then this is the person who should represent the fire department in this capacity. If an interested employee needs development in inter-personal skills, then at a minimum, engage this person with a more experienced crew member so the employee can observe interactions with citizen(s) and/or group(s). You must know who your best representatives of the crew are so you can utilize their talents, because it will likely influence citizens’ opinion of your organization for many years to come.

Lastly, remember that effective communication requires that we not only talk, but listen as well. Avoid lecturing your audience as you get your message across, and allow time for questions and feedback. Give your audience time to digest your message and ask questions, and answer them as completely as possible so they don’t leave uninformed or confused.

2. Knowledgeable in fire prevention. Firefighters can describe all the parts of a ladder and the proper techniques used to force open a door without having to think about it. Can these same firefighters tell you the difference between a photoelectric and an ionization smoke alarm or provide appropriate intervals for testing or changing the batteries? Are these firefighters able to develop a comprehensive home escape plan or give the correct information on a residential sprinkler system? If not, then you have just found your next few departmental training topics.

If we are going to call ourselves true fire service professionals, we should be just as knowledgeable about fire prevention as we are about ventilation and water application. If you are fortunate enough to have your own recruit academy, then ensure that adequate time is being spent on fire prevention education. I think you’ll find that graduates consider this information to be essential throughout their careers. If training falls to the company level, incorporate prevention topics into your company drills to maintain proficiency and competency. While residents want you to be well trained in fire suppression, they also want professional firefighters to be able to explain to them how to prevent the need for our suppression services.

3. Adapt your message to your audience. If you are giving the same fire prevention message every time you engage with people, then you are failing. You would not explain how to draw a picture of a tree to an adult the same way you would to a child.

Attention span, knowledge base, educational background and socio-economic conditions are considerable factors when communicating. When we communicate with kids, we are equipped with stickers, plastic helmets and Sparky as part of our message. Kids associate the excitement of receiving promotional items and seeing Sparky and the fire truck as the most important part of their interaction with us. Communicating with kids in this way, however, does not mean they cannot learn something from us.

We all know that children retain a limited amount of information during each encounter, therefore, we need to communicate effectively during each talk. In order to learn what kids know, ask questions that are easy for them to answer. For example, ask if they have working smoke alarms at home. If the response is yes, then ask if they know how to test an alarm or change the batteries. Continue with this line of questioning until you get to the point where they don’t know something. If the children you are speaking to say they do not have working smoke alarms at home, this should be the educational focus during your interaction. We can’t expect to teach kids everything in one meeting so figure out what they know and add one more piece of information to enhance their understanding.

Communicating with adults is different in that you are able to communicate more complex messages. Providing a handout or information sheet is helpful, but make sure to include contact information in case one has questions later. A quick way to share information is through QR codes and social media. If current information is available electronically, have a QR code readily accessible so folks can scan it with their phone; you might also provide information about your social media efforts. If you are primarily relying on mailers and press releases as your main source of communication then you aren’t maximizing your potential.

Communicating with adults effectively is essential to maximizing the significant impact of each interaction. Remember, you want to share information in a way that communicates the information you’re trying to convey in a professional, timely and courteous manner. Always remember to thank the audience for their time and let them know that your department is a valuable resource, and questions are always welcome.

4. Being principled. Being principled is the most important aspect of your education efforts. Successful fire prevention officers understand the importance of a top down focus. Great leaders know that they have to lead by example by being good communicators, maximizing opportunities, and fostering a culture where people look at prevention opportunities as meaningful chances to save lives. Fire chiefs and company officers should support programs through their actions, not words alone. It is important to make prevention a key component of your recruit academy or training programs. Try to attend a prevention program from time to time to demonstrate the significance of prevention efforts.

Changing the culture of your organization is not going to happen overnight, but if leadership doesn’t support or believe in change, then it will not happen. Residents would much rather interact with us when their house is not on fire, so make sure that you take advantage of every opportunity to communicate in as positive and meaningful a way as possible.

As professional fire officers, we have all taken an oath of office to serve the public by protecting life and property. The best way for us to fulfill this oath is to try and prevent fires from occurring in the first place, while ensuring citizens are prepared for an unexpected fire. Whether you are at a school during Fire Prevention Month or a random meeting in a parking lot, make the most of each opportunity to educate and communicate with citizens. Allow the right person to speak for the group, regardless of rank, and stay current on the latest information and best practices. Make sure to use the right message for your audience and help others see the importance of what you are doing. Preventing fires reduces risk for everyone, the public and our members alike. Thank you for your service each and every day!

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