Off Duty: Bringing Fire-Prevention Learning to Life

Michael Furman changed how the basic talking points of home fire safety and prevention are delivered.

Career and volunteer firefighter Michael Furman created Flash Max to kick start the stagnating way that the home fire safety and prevention message is delivered.
Career and volunteer firefighter Michael Furman created Flash Max to kick start the stagnating way that the home fire safety and prevention message is delivered.
Photo courtesy of Michael Furman

As the son of a now-retired Washington, D.C., police officer and the nephew of a D.C. firefighter, I knew from a young age that I, too, wanted to work in public safety. Today, I have more than three decades of service with the La Plata, MD, Volunteer Fire Department and the Fairfax County, VA, Fire Rescue Department and La Plata. 

One day during Fire Prevention Week in 2014 after my kids came home from school, I noticed that they threw a fire prevention handout into the trash. I retrieved the discarded handout and looked at the vague illustration that incorporated some fire safety information. Sadly, into the trash also went a chance to reach out to kids with potentially life-saving information. Although the basic talking points of home fire safety and prevention have remained relatively unchanged over the years, unfortunately so has the message delivery.


The birth of a superhero

Fire prevention and home fire safety messaging can be dry and difficult to digest. We also are up against complacency. Methods of engaging with families were due for a much-needed facelift that grabbed their attention. Seeing how my own children love cartoons—and with the recent resurgence of interest in superheroes—I went to work at my drawing table with pencil and paper. Flash Max, the Fire Safety Superhero, was born.

My idea in the creation of Flash Max was to present the primary talking points of his home fire safety message: have working smoke alarms on every level of your home, regularly practice a home fire escape plan as a family and sleep with your bedroom doors closed at night. I wanted to present this information to children and parents in a fun and interactive platform, yet also in a way that was agreeable to firefighters at public education events.

Flash Max’s costume represents different aspects of his mission. The orange jersey stands for fire and the month of October, which includes both National Fire Prevention Week and National Bullying Prevention Month. His blue mask, gloves and legs represent the fraternal bonds with our fellow police officers and EMS workers. The red, 1960s-era helmet and cape lend tribute to the fire service’s traditional history with a superhero flare. The helmet’s custom-made front shield serves the dual-purpose of displaying the Flash Max name while teaching the universal emergency number, 9-1-1, to kids as part of Flash Max’s message.

Because many children are visual learners but have short attention spans, I needed to come up with a method to visually portray each point of the message in a way that was interesting and made educational sense. I combined a smoke alarm character with a superhero shield that Flash Max would carry on his arm. Al-Arm, the Smoke Alarm, features bulging, cartoonish eyes, an intake-vent smile, and an alternating red and green light, just like an actual smoke alarm. To emphasize the important concept of closed bedroom doors at nighttime, Zoor, the Door, took on a dual personality as a big, friendly bedroom security guard that has a smoky, frowning hallway side and a clean, white, smiling bedroom side, which gives family members extra time to escape by holding back flames and smoke.

With the birth of Flash Max, I went on to write and illustrate a Flash Max fire prevention book “Flash Max, Fire Safety Superhero.”

Career and volunteer firefighter Michael Furman created Flash Max to kick start the stagnating way that the home fire safety and prevention message is delivered.Career and volunteer firefighter Michael Furman created Flash Max to kick start the stagnating way that the home fire safety and prevention message is delivered.Photo courtesy of Michael Furman

Flash Max comes to life

Writing and illustrating my book sparked my imagination further. My experience in speaking at fire prevention presentations made me think, “How cool would it be to bring Flash Max and the other characters to life, so children, teachers and parents could hear Flash Max’s message from…Flash Max himself?” The goal: Grab the audience’s attention and make the message interesting, interactive and fun. I searched for costume designers. Unsuccessful for months, I decided to piece together the suit myself. After months of phone calls, e-mails, research, development, design and traveling, Flash Max finally came together as a live, interactive action figure who is prepared to hit the home fire safety stage and speak his message. The ensemble was incomplete without Al-Arm, so I used a plastic trash can lid, bubble eyes from a craft store and battery-operated LED lighting. Using an actual smoke alarm behind the shield, Al-Arm would light up and sound off when kids pressed the ‘test’ button, effectively teaching them how easy and important it is to regularly test their home smoke alarms.

Reception to the costumed character by firefighters was, as one might expect, not without some humorous comments but was embraced quickly as a novel concept to put to the test in front of an audience.

The first time I bounced onto the stage at an elementary school visit, I didn’t know what reaction to expect from the teachers and children, but the kids loved Flash Max and paid attention to his message, and teachers loved the idea, too. After several Fire Prevention Week performances, I found myself receiving phone calls and emails from people inquiring about booking Flash Max for their schools, fire station open houses and community events. This grew into my Flash Max traveling road show program that is thriving today.

Continuing fire prevention

I continue to add to my program, including the introduction of Winkler, the Fire Sprinkler, in partnership with the National Fire Sprinkler Association. Winkler is dedicated to the memory of six people (in particular, four children), who were lost tragically in a mansion fire in Annapolis, MD. Winkler’s design is formed from the first letter of each child’s name (Wesley, Kaitlyn, Charlotte and Alexis), so their voices in home fire safety may continue to be heard. I joined forces with the children’s aunt, Sher Grogg, who is now a public speaker for the nonprofit Common Voices, and we speak together at regional home fire safety functions, news media events and conferences.

 My aspirations for Flash Max include a sequel to my original book, purchasing a larger travel trailer to accommodate my gear and props and forming my nonprofit for Flash Max. Becoming a nonprofit will help me financially and logistically to realize the dreams that I have to educate families nationwide on the importance of smoke alarms, practicing escape plans, closing bedroom doors and home fire sprinkler systems. 

More in Off-duty