Public Fire Education & Training: Making a Difference

March 1, 2009
Select Your Targets and Go Offensive

Public fire safety education and training are the keys to reducing the fire problem - and the fire death rate - in the United States. People die in building fires because of construction features, the reactions of occupants or both. Improvements in building codes can continue to assist in reducing the number of fires, but the public's reaction to fires will still determine whether occupants survive.

As it is presented today, public fire safety education - meaning lectures, videos and pamphlets - alone is not enough to reduce our fire epidemic. We need to train our public to prevent, respond and react to fires in the same manner we train our firefighters to suppress them. And that means training for adults as well as children.

Think about that. When firefighters go into a fire, is the environment any different for us than it is for the trapped occupants? Of course not. So why should the training we provide to our firefighters on how to survive that environment be any different from what we provide to the public? Our people didn't learn their fire survival skills via lectures, videos and pamphlets; it was their training. Firefighters react without having to think or recall; their bodies just move and they survive. This type of training builds confidence and thus instills calm, and that is exactly what our citizens need to be able to prevent, react to and survive a fire.

While children are important targets of fire safety training, they have little control of fire prevention in the home. The key to reducing fires and fire deaths is getting an adult audience. Few adults see the need for fire safety, and thus our nation's fire problem. Many adults believe that "Stop, drop and roll" and "Don't play with matches" are all fire safety is about. They remember when they were kids, when the fire service's focus on fire prevention was new. Back then, many of those doing fire prevention were not there by choice or talent, but because of injury or by being "volunteered" by their leadership.

We have come a long way.

If you truly want to make a difference, truly want to reduce the number of fires and fire deaths, you must target adults and go offensive. Sell your programs and create a need among adults to hear what you have to say.

The City of Beaufort, SC, created our "First Impressions - Lasting Impressions" program over two years ago. The original concept was to reach daycare-, pre-kindergarten- and kindergarten-age children early. It is an introductory program in which we introduce firefighters and teach basic fire survival to children in a fun and interactive way, making that important "first impression" and setting the stage for years of quality education and training as these children progress through the educational system - thus a "lasting impression."

We have since expanded the program to adults. In doing so, we turned to local institutions of higher learning to find adults starting out on their career paths and who can be targeted by us to make that same important "first impression." The schools, which include a four-year university and a technical college, teach a wide variety of subjects. Each publishes a schedule every year of upcoming classes and programs, and that is where we began our search.

We identified a handful of classes that would not only make an impact on home fire safety, but public fire safety as well, because during these students' career paths they will impact larger audiences; in essence, by talking to a class of 20 students, we could, through them, reach hundreds. We made sure that our topics fit in with the educational objectives of the classes we selected, so we were satisfying the needs of the professors and making it easier to get the class time. The classes we selected as our targets were "Early Childhood Education," "Culinary Arts," "Hospitality Management" and "Building Codes."

- "Early Childhood Education" - We chose "Early Childhood Education" because these future teachers will be working primarily with the children who are most at risk. For this curriculum, we contacted the professor who instructs the "Community Health" portion of the program. This class covers the how-to, and importance of, teaching health and safety to children. Our lesson was a perfect fit.

The professor gives us an entire class period to meet with the future teachers in our school system, and he includes portions of our presentations on his exams. This program stresses the important role that teachers can play in reinforcing the fire safety lessons we give to their students and how teachers can help get that information home to parents.

During the lesson, we cover the need for fire survival training, and why fire safety cannot be just a once-a-year effort that involves only catchy rhymes, songs and plastic fire hats. The children must demonstrate and practice (train) on how to survive a fire. We express the importance of the teacher's actions during school fire drills, and how that drill should include the same messages as home fire drills, such as go to the nearest exit, feel doors for heat, stay low, go to windows, go to the meeting place and never go back inside. After all, school fire drills may be the only fire safety training some students will ever get, so the teachers must make it count and set a good example on the seriousness of alarms and escape.

Teachers are an important resource for the fire service, and every effort should be made to form partnerships with them. Not only will it help us get the class time and reach our target audiences, but more importantly, they can reinforce our messages and get them into the hands of that important adult audience through homework assignments and other projects. Imagine the impact if, after every school fire drill, the students do a project for homework that night, signed by the parents, on their home fire drill they practiced that same evening? We also run these future teachers through our fire safety house as if they are children so they can see our techniques, and hear our messages first hand.

Many of these former college students are now in the classrooms and have invited us to their classes, where they are applying what we talked about during our presentations. It has been a great relationship builder for us.

- "Culinary Arts" and "Hospitality Management" - The technical college and university teach a culinary arts program and a hospitality management program, respectively. They attract many local chefs, restaurant and hotel managers, and staff. These were classes we chose to reach out to because restaurants and hotels are target hazards.

We also chose these classes because of the situations we were finding while doing our routine fire inspections. Not only were we finding common hazards, but that the employees had a total lack of knowledge on fire extinguishers, hood systems and emergency evacuation plans, and hotel rooms were found without working alarm systems and smoke detectors. Again, in both classes, we are given entire class periods to talk and the information we provide during our presentation shows up on their class exams or in projects.

To set the tone for the class and to gain their attention from the beginning, we start with a little history on some of the more devastating fires in eating and drinking establishments and hotels, from the Cocoanut Grove fire to the MGM Grand hotel fire. We talk about what went right and what went wrong. We wrap up with The Station Night Club fire to show the common threads between all of the fires and loss of life in these establishments. By showing the trending and watching the video of The Station fire, we are able to show how people react to fire and demonstrate the need for prevention, a well-trained staff and adherence to fire codes.

We cover basic fire codes that any employee can notice and correct. We talk about placement of, and the use of, fire extinguishers and hood systems. One of our students stated he had been working in kitchens for over 15 years and never knew how the hood system worked. We stress the importance of every business having an emergency plan and why every employee should have a specific responsibility and know his or her role in that plan. We knew we were being successful when the culinary arts instructor received phone calls from local restaurant owners about their employees unplugging extension cords and moving stock around to clear exits and fire extinguishers.

The class concludes with the students performing fire extinguisher training with our live-fire propane prop. This is a big hit not only for these students, but also the other students on campus who stop to watch. We also offered ride-alongs for the students with a fire inspector to see an inspection up close.

The focus is on ownership of the employee for their safety, for their coworkers' safety and for the safety of their customers. We encourage them to ask their bosses "What if?" and to make sure their establishment is following fire codes and the staff is trained and prepared for an emergency. Also, we show that fire prevention does work, and why and how codes are important.

This class, as in the "Early Childhood Education" class, has been a great relationship builder, as we have come across many of these former students while out doing inspections, and when we walk in the door of their business they are prepared for us and understand why we are there, and they are generally more cooperative. Some are now head chefs and managers.

- "Building Codes" - Our local technical college offers various building code classes that are attended by many students who work in construction, are contractors - or hope to be - or are already working in a codes-related field. This school offers a basic building and roadway code class, and we targeted them both for obvious reasons. Our intent is not to teach codes, but to take what the instructor has already taught, and reinforce that information with facts and real-world examples.

As in the other classes, we start with a quick history of codes, along with major U.S. conflagrations, and how poor building codes, community design and planning contributed to each tragedy. We discuss common fire codes, and relate those codes back to the tragedy that gave birth to it (an example is fire exits and the Cocoanut Grove fire). We show pictures from local fires, work sites and problems we see that could lead to tragedy. We use statistics to show where most victims are found, and why they became victims, and how simple codes, and adherence to those codes, could have prevented that death.

We also devote a portion to sprinkler systems in commercial and residential settings, then take the students through the safety house to experience first-hand the panic and disorientation of a fire, which proves how codes can help stop the spread of deadly smoke and flames, as well as help panic-stricken people find their way out and survive.

The students in the roadway code class get a ride in our tower truck through some of our tighter streets, along with a small obstacle course, to get an appreciation for the turn radius, access and clearance needed to safely maneuver and operate fire apparatus.

The focus of this program is on the "why" of fire codes - "why" we have them and "why" they are important - and we prove that with facts, statistics, photos and demonstrations. We stress that fire codes are minimum standards and "why" enforcing a higher standard is needed in some situations. We show the students how easy it is for them to save lives in the buildings and homes they are constructing - to take ownership for the safety of the future occupants.

We have every reason to believe this class will be as successful in developing relationships with these future community leaders as our other programs have been. We also have no doubt that one day, some of these very same students will be sitting across the planning table from us as developers or contractors hoping to have their projects approved. Now what do you think we will find on their conceptual plans?

With funding for fire prevention programs and personnel on the decline, programs like these are important to building fire safety allies or "auxiliary" prevention personnel in our communities in key areas to assist us in our mission and help our cause. Making a "first impression" is a "lasting impression," and we need fire safety advocates in all corners and at all levels of our community.

We have to rethink the way we are doing fire safety education because according to fire fatality statistics, what we are doing is not fully working. Remember, those who need you the most will not be the ones who seek you out, and that's why we have a fire problem. Stay focused on one person, one family at a time. Be proactive, be creative, target your audience and go offensive to make the difference in your community.

DANIEL BYRNE is a lieutenant and the fire marshal for the Beaufort, SC, Fire Department. He holds an associate's degree in fire science and is pursuing a bachelor's degree, also in fire science. A 22-year veteran of the emergency services, Byrne is a National Fire Academy alumnus and a volunteer paramedic with Beaufort County EMS. A U.S. Marine veteran of the Desert Shield/Storm War, he is a technical sergeant with the Georgia Air National Guard, serving in the Fire Protection Division airport crash crew. The Beaufort Fire Department has twice been the recipient of the SCAFC Richard S. Campbell Award for Excellence in Public Fire Safety Education. He can be reached at [email protected].

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