By Becki White
Although every fire is different, the scenes generally play out the same: The trucks rush in. Sometimes a few firefighters are scurrying around to get initial tasks completed so suppression can start. Sometimes you arrive later when the block is filled with flashing lights spilling across neighbors’ lawns. Neighbors and homeowners are gathered outside, watching the firefighters work while fire and smoke reaches into the sky.
You can usually spot the homeowners, watching with horror as they experience arguably the worst day of their lives. As all their possessions float into the sky, tied into the particles of smoke that billow upward, they wonder what they could have done differently to avoid all this pain. The only relief is in knowing that the people they love are outside, where it’s safe.
At fire after fire, I have seen this scenario play out. I take it all in as I walk through the scene to get my assignment and start doing my job. Suppress the fire, ventilate, salvage; I am there, after all, to fight the fire. But time after time, I see the same behavior in homeowners, renters, families, neighbors, business owners, employees—all wondering what they might have done differently. The faces pile up in my head and flash across my mind days and weeks after the fire. I wonder how they’re holding up and if they’re struggling to move forward. I wonder if the businesses will reopen, if the employees will struggle to find other jobs, if the home will be rebuilt, or if our efforts to save their homes will be wasted when they tear it down and start over. All of these things fuel my dedication to fire prevention and fire safety education.
I want to reach out to these people before I see them huddled on the lawn, crying in the dark, and wondering what they could have done because, as a firefighter, I know; I could tell them, and so can you.
Prevention is now a buzzword in the fire service, even though the concept is as old as firefighting itself. Back in the days of Benjamin Franklin, when the fire service was just developing in the U.S., there was a multifaceted approach consisting of trained firefighters, citizen bucket-brigades, and education on preventing home fires. After a while, the focus went solely to suppression and rescue efforts. Now we’re realizing that we can reduce the number of firefighter deaths by having fewer fires. We can fight fires before they start through prevention education. Granted, it’s far less glamorous to wear a polished uniform and hand out fire safety information than it is to be seen in soot-covered turnout gear with a hose over your shoulder. However, consider prevention from the perspective of that homeowner huddled in the front yard, losing everything. It looks pretty glamorous from that angle.
So, public education is the new silver bullet. But what is it, really? If you hand out plastic fire helmets and badge stickers, does that count as public education? When you have an open house where people can walk through the station, gather information, and ride in the fire truck, does that count as public education? Maybe.
There are three ways to reach out to the public: Public relations (PR), public information, and public education; functioning in that order. Anything you do as a member of your community fire department falls into one of those categories, whether you think you’re representing the department or not.
It’s all about the image, from the firefighter emblem on your license plate to a polished uniform at a city council meeting and everything in between. When a firefighter in a department T-shirt makes an offensive comment in a public fit of frustration, that’s bad PR. When a firefighter holds a door for someone on the way into the grocery store, that’s good PR. Both actions are taken without thinking, and both can have far-reaching effects on your department’s image and possibly your department’s budget. When crews show up on scene, their behavior and efficiency is PR, good or bad—it’s based on the perception of the audience.
Public information is related to, but not the same as, public relations. When you hand out a flyer, provide statistics about the number of fires last year or the types of calls you go on, talk about how many gallons of water your pumpers can hold, or answer a reporter’s question on how many departments fought this-or-that fire, all of it is information. You are providing facts—period. The information may interest your audience or it may fly right over their heads.
Sometimes we hope that if throw enough information out there, something will stick; often, the opposite happens. The more information that’s out there, the less likely people will find a lifesaving nugget; they can become overwhelmed.
Delivery of information is key to how it gets processed by your audience. If you’re throwing out random facts like Cliff Claven, they’ll be received differently than if you tie the information to something important to the people you’re telling—something they can identify with. The mere act of giving out facts is not education. Teaching is more than making information available; it has to be digestible.
Education happens ONLY when there is a new understanding or a behavior change tied to it. Someone must identify with the information they’ve been given and process it in a way that changes his actions. He may start or stop doing something because of the impact the information has on his mind—and his heart.
There is a fine line between public information and public education; the difference is compelling someone to hear your message—making them understand why it’s important to listen and to alter his behavior. And, if he is already doing the right thing, he will understand why it’s right, and he will become your extended advocate.
Identify Your Delivery Method
Most houses have smoke alarms. (I wish I could say ALL houses do, as it is the law, but we know that’s not true.) So, what compels people to check and change their batteries? Some would argue that it’s the repeated message, coming mostly from the fire service, that they need to check the batteries in their alarms. But in fact, it’s more likely that the message they heard was part of a news story on a fire fatality, or the message was delivered with the statistic that people are more likely to die in homes without working smoke alarms. An informational message with an emotional element, even if the emotion is fear, prompts people to take action. And those who take that action have been educated.
Handing out plastic helmets and sticker badges and showing off the big, shiny trucks is great PR. Talking about the number of calls you go on, the type of apparatus you have, and how your department works is great information. Connecting with people on an individual level, making sure they hear about what they’re doing right and what they could do to keep themselves and their families safe—that’s education. Find the connection, that compelling information that makes your message relevant to them. Explain how making, or not making, a simple change could impact their lives.
Each of these forms of communication is important, and each has its place. There are times when the plastic fire helmets; sticker badges; and big, shiny trucks should be the focus. But, you can’t accurately call it public education unless you are, in fact, educating the public.
For resources on the types of messaging you can tap into, the best ways to reach out to the people in your community, and how to deliver your message in the most effective manner, reach out to the U.S. Fire Administration (http://www.usfa.fema.gov/citizens), the National Fire Protection Association (http://www.nfpa.org/safety-information/for-public-educators), or your local state fire marshal’s office.
Becki White is a Minnesota deputy state fire marshal and a captain in the Eden Prairie (MN) Fire Department. She has a master's degree in teaching and learning and was an elementary teacher for 12 years. White has combined her passion for education with her knowledge and experience in the fire service to become a resource for fire and life safety educators. White is also the vice president of the North Star Women's Firefighter Association, a nonprofit organization that assists with mentoring, networking, and training women in the fire service.
MORE BECKI WHITE
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