By Becki White
We’ve all seen it—the headline that captures everyone’s attention about a fire in the community, or the introduction on the nightly news: “Fire breaks out at the First Street Factory” or “Fire broke out last night in Center City…”
Each time I hear or see that phrase, I become more frustrated with the expression. It’s part of culture in the United States to sensationalize fire. Behaving and speaking as though fire just strikes its next victim with no warning adds a magical quality and makes fire seem completely random. The truth, however, is dull. We don’t have boxes of magical fire stored in the back of the cupboard, allowing fire to just “break out”!
Considering why our culture accepts this mythical perception of fire, I realize that people don’t really know much about it. We are familiar with fire because knowledge of it is essential for us to do our jobs safely. And because we know about it, we assume that everyone else does. However, most adults last experienced fire safety education when they were 10 years old, if at all. They learned about fire trucks and firefighters, about 911 and how to stop, drop, and roll. They learned about smoke alarms, if they were lucky. But they don’t know about fire behavior, about smoke and fire patterns, and about how construction styles and building materials impact the growth and movement of a fire. Many believe they have five to 10 minutes or longer to exit their homes in a fire when, in reality, they have half that time.
Having been trained to understand fire, we think it’s bizarre that they don’t take fire safety more seriously. (When I hear about the unsafe behaviors my own relatives practice, I shake my head and hope I was adopted.) But, how should they know any better? When would they have learned? Unless your department provides education to new residents in your community or has some way of tapping into the adult demographic, there’s just no way for them to learn these things.
Most of what people learn about fire in their adult lives comes from their children and grandchildren after school visits from firefighters or from the media such as television shows, movies, and social media. And we know how accurately fire behavior is portrayed on TV, right? It shows spot fires all around the room, with little to no smoke or light, wispy smoke. That’s not reality! We know because we’ve been there. The citizens haven’t.
As a culture, we accept a certain amount of fire loss; fires happen, people die. It’s okay, though, because it doesn’t happen to us or to people we know. As long as it’s happening “over there,” to “them,” it’s just an unfortunate accident. The news story where fire magically breaks out usually includes a shocked citizen saying, “We never thought it would happen here.”
As fire service professionals, we can make it clear to people that they live “there.” And so does fire potential. Fire doesn’t discriminate; it happens in houses, condos, apartment buildings, dormitories, cabins, trailers—anywhere people live. It happens to wealthy and nonwealthy families, to college graduates and high school dropouts. Fire doesn’t care who you are; it’s opportunistic. It takes advantage of careless behavior—anyone’s careless behavior.
We need to stop accepting the fact that fire just happens. We need to stop merely feeling sorry for people who have fires and begin to add accountability to our reactions. In many countries, people are held responsible when they have fires. They have to pay back the community for the cost of fire suppression. Here, we don’t talk directly about fire cause because it might not be politically correct to call out someone’s irresponsible behavior. We don’t want to mention that their fire was completely preventable; it might appear that we’re calling them stupid or blaming them for what happened.
A residential fire is a teachable moment, and we should capitalize on it. Go door-to-door during the week after the fire and talk to citizens about it. Explain what happened to them and how they can avoid having similar incidents in their own homes. Provide them the fire safety education that they haven’t received since they were in elementary school.
The U.S. Fire Administration has launched a new campaign—one the entire fire service can get behind: Fire is Everyone’s Fight. The message is simple: Fire is preventable, and prevention is in everyone’s hands. When we go into the schools and talk to third graders about prevention, fire becomes their fight. When we visit the senior centers and talk about cooking fire safety, fire becomes their fight. The fire service is not alone in this battle against fire. Fire is everyone’s fight!
SO, WHAT CAN YOU DO?
If you are out in your community such as on your way to-or-from a call, out having dinner, or shopping, stop and talk to people. Strike up a conversation with other people at restaurants and events you attend. The topic is especially timely when you’re waiting for someone to cook your food. Ask people if they know that cooking mistakes are the leading cause of home fires and explain how cooking fires start. Ask if they know that the last fire in their community was started by a candle, and tell them about flameless candles. As you’re out-and-about in the neighborhood, talk to people about how their homes are built and how fast fire can spread. Ask if they check their smoke alarms and if they have an exit plan and a meeting place and if they practice that plan. These side conversations, which can take just moments, will impact the people you’re talking to and countless other people they’ll share the information with. (Can you imagine the conversations? “A firefighter started talking to me when I was in line at the hardware store today…”) It’s great public relations for your department that’s likely to bring down the number of preventable fires in your community.
Fire doesn’t break out. Aside from the very few fires caused by Mother Nature, fires are preventable. People don’t need to lose their homes, their jobs, their possessions, their pets, their family members. It doesn’t need to happen. And you don’t want it to happen in your community.
So, what are you doing to ensure that your city isn’t the next one on the news?
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.
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