By Brian Stoothoff
On October 9, 1920, the first national Fire Prevention Day was inaugurated by Presidential proclamation. Five years later, President Coolidge would extend the day to become an entire week. The date of October 9h was chosen because it commemorates the Great Chicago fire of 1871.
Most fire departments schedule firefighters to visit schools within their jurisdiction during fire prevention week. However, if you have more than just a few schools in your district, you probably struggle to visit every school over the course of several weeks. I am not advocating extending fire prevention week, but I strongly suggest you think about promoting fire prevention activities for longer than one week, or even one month. If your agency only conducts fire prevention activities during the month of October, you are losing out on valuable community contacts the other eleven months of the year. As firefighters, we witness the destruction caused by fire on a regular basis. We often erroneously assume that citizens know how deadly fire can be, that citizens know how to prevent fire, and know how to react should a fire occur, but that is simply not the case unless we educate them. When I was a young firefighter I came to expect that each October my engine company would visit a local school, and after sharing a few facts the children would climb on the red shiny fire truck. That was the extent of fire prevention week. Although my department still visits school children, I am proud to announce that we now more. I have come to appreciate how much more fire prevention can and should involve.
In addition to elementary schools, you may want to contact the Chamber of Commerce. This is a great place to learn what businesses are in your area, and you can find out statistics that will be beneficial to you such as the number of people they employ and contact information. The mission of every fire department should include educating citizens of all ages about the dangers of fire. A successful fire prevention program should be conducted twelve months a year, and it doesn’t have to cost much. Begin by developing a list of groups that you can speak to. Here are some suggested groups that you might want to contact to arrange a speaking engagement:
- Rotary clubs, Lions and Elks lodges
- Churches and synagogues
- Retail and wholesale outlets
- Manufacturing facilities
- Condominium associations
- Neighborhood watch groups
- Apartment complex management
- Boys and Girls club
- Nursing homes
- Medical and dental offices
- Health department
- Boy and Girl Scouts
- Daycare, elementary, middle and high schools.
After you have obtained a name and a phone number, give them a call, or, better yet, stop by in person. Let them know you can provide training at no cost to them and that you are interested in speaking to them about fire safety. Have a supply of business cards so that you can leave one with your phone number and e-mail address. If you reach out to just a few new contacts each month, you will be amazed at the goodwill generated for your department.
When the business owner or manager calls to schedule an appointment, ask how long they want you to speak for. Find out approximately how many employees or persons will be in attendance, and if they have a TV/DVD player available for your use.
On the day of the scheduled detail, arrive a few minutes early to greet the contact person. Make sure the audio/visual equipment is working and that there are adequate chairs in the room where the training will be conducted. Locate the fire extinguishers in the immediate vicinity of the classroom (you will read why later). A sign-in sheet is useful for statistical purposes; ask those in attendance to sign in. It will be helpful at the end of the month or at the end of the year to know how many citizens you trained.
Begin the presentation by asking a question like: “Who can tell me where the closest fire extinguisher is to where you are sitting?” Present a gift to the person in the audience with the correct answer. Explain how important it is to look for extinguishers when they enter a shopping mall, theatre, hotel, or place of business. Give them some tips that will save their life in the event of a fire. On getting their attention, mention the reason why thousands of people die every year in this country because of fire: They did not have a plan of action. Explain they will have a plan and know the facts most Americans do not know about fire by the end of your presentation. Don’t miss the opportunity to share photographs from your town showing the destruction caused by fire. The viewers quickly realize that the statistics are from their neighborhoods, not just some obscure facts. You can talk about the causes of fire, how they should react if they experience a fire, and how to prevent fire. You can obtain a DVD on the proper way to use a fire extinguisher, and incorporate this into your training. There are some low-cost videos and DVDs that you can purchase if your budget is limited. When you speak in a place of business, make reference to their written policy manual pertaining to fire safety; if they do not have a written policy, suggest they formulate one. Some ideas for them to consider are R.A.C.E. (Rescue, Activate, Confine, Evacuate or extinguish) and P.A.S.S. (Pull, Aim, Squeeze, Sweep), both common in many workplace manuals.
In addition, talk about the dangers of smoke and the characteristics of carbon monoxide. During your presentation, always mention the importance of having a working smoke alarm in every household. If your agency does not provide smoke alarms to the public, perhaps you can initiate this worthwhile project. Talk with folks in neighboring fire departments who have a successful smoke alarm program, then adopt a model that will work in your community. Brochures and pamphlets for distribution are another useful tool that you may want to consider. Having visual reminders help people remember your visit long after you leave.
Brian Stoothoff is a battalion chief and 27-year veteran of Ocala (FL) Fire Rescue. He is responsible for public education, is a public information officer for the department, and handles special projects. He holds college degrees in business administration, fire science, and emergency medical services. He can be reached at (352) 629-8513 or [email protected].