Fire Commentary: How a Hybrid Vehicle is Like Fire Safety

By Ed Comeau

It’s time for me to buy a new car, so I decided that this would be the time to do the right thing by the planet and buy a hybrid. We did the research and decided on a certain SUV hybrid model that had been rated the “greenest” by the Environmental Protection Agency. We walked into a number of dealers looking for one to test drive, and the universal response was, “Yeah, sure!” You cannot find one, come hell or high water, because it is so popular. It has about a four-month waiting list. On top of that, it costs at least $2,000 more than the regular nonhybrid model. OK, so people are willing to pay $2,000 more and wait months for a vehicle that, to the driver, is absolutely identical to a currently available standard vehicle because they know there is a problem (global warming) and they want to be part of the solution, not the problem.

The vitally important point is that the public is aware of and educated about the problem and is seeking solutions. They are willing to pay more for the solution because they believe in it. The parallels between climate change and fire safety are striking (more on that in a minute). In a lecture on national views towards climate change given at the National Science Foundation, Dr. Jon Krosnick from Stanford University outlined the five steps that determine the “national seriousness” of a problem:


  • It exists.

  • It will be bad for people.

  • I am certain of that.

  • Humans caused it.

  • We can solve it.

The “national seriousness scale” of climate change has risen dramatically as each of these five components becomes a reality in society. In a presentation, Frank Niepold of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Program Office espoused a new communications approach for public climate education that directly applies to what we are trying to accomplish in fire safety.


  • Repetition and simultaneity: Repeated exposure to the messages would be especially important, and simultaneous reception from multiple sources would favor success.

  • Visual drama: Dramatic visual portrayals of climate change are persuasive, even in animated form.

  • Message discipline: Even though different messages could be created for different target audiences, it is important that the overall effort be disciplined with a set of coordinated core messages so that the impact is reinforced and cumulative.

  • Pretesting: Messages should be pretested, using not just standard qualitative focus groups, but also quantitatively rigorous methodologies.

  • Measurable outcomes: Baseline measurements of beliefs and attitudes should be performed before the start of the effort and measured against results afterward.

  • Avoid duplication: It will be vital to ensure that all the key players in all key domains are on board with this strategy and not institutionally threatened by it.

OK, so let’s look at fire safety through the prism of a nationally serious problem.

It exists. The public is not demanding fire safety and are not supporting our efforts on the local level for issues such as sprinklers because they do not perceive there is a problem. Fire, fire deaths, injuries, property damage, environmental damage is not an issue–it does not exist.

It will be bad for people. Yes, fire is bad, but people perceive it as a problem for only the one or two people who are killed in a fire. It is not perceived as a societal problem with larger ramifications than just an isolated incident. I am certain of that we could do a better job of communicating the real impact of fire on the community and society. Fire requires larger budgets, uses up valuable resources, contributes to pollution, places our firefighters at danger, etc. This can be done with constant, consistent messaging that reinforces the ongoing lessons.

Humans caused it. Fire is too often perceived as an “accident”; not something that is caused by humans. I would dare to say that 99 percent of fire deaths involve a human factor that, if changed, would have resulted in a different outcome. We need to change this perception with consistent, ongoing messaging.

We can solve it. Fire professionals know and believe this. We must communicate to the public that THEY can play a role as well. Indeed, they MUST play a role since the fire professional cannot do it alone. Now let’s apply Niepold’s ideas to fire safety.


  • Repetition and simultaneity: Repeated exposure to the messages would be especially important, and simultaneous reception from multiple sources would favor success. Every single day, there are certainly enough “teachable moments” occurring across the country, and on some days more dramatically than others. We are not taking advantage of these vital opportunities to raise the fire safety awareness of in the public as we should.

  • Visual drama: Dramatic visual portrayals of climate change are persuasive, even in animated form. There is no question about it…fire is always visual drama, sometimes the most intense drama there is.

  • Message discipline: Even though different messages would be created for different target audiences, it is important for the overall effort to be disciplined with a set of coordinated core messages so that the impact will be reinforced and cumulative. We lack message discipline and consistency. For example, when the two leading national fire safety organizations (the National Fire Protection Association and the United States Fire Administration) cannot agree on what is the leading cause of fatal fires, that is a problem.

  • Pre-testing: Messages should be pretested, using not just standard qualitative focus groups, but also quantitatively rigorous methodologies. Everything we do now is “on the fly” without consistent, tested messaging. This is where we need national leadership to help in crafting these messages that can then be used locally.

  • Measurable outcomes: Baseline measurements of beliefs and attitudes should be performed before the start of the effort and measured against results afterward. Ongoing evaluation of public perception towards fire is one measurable outcome, but the best one of all is fewer fires, fewer deaths, and fewer injuries. That is the ultimate measurable outcome.

  • Avoiding duplication: It will be vital to ensure that all the key players in all key domains are on board with this strategy and not institutionally threatened by it. We have a myriad of organizations that need to be brought together and speak with one, consistent voice. This is probably one of the biggest problems of all and probably one of the biggest hurdles to overcome.

We need to make it an issue. We need an Inconvenient Truth. We need to be radical, different, out there. We need to be positive–we can make a change, YOU (the public) can make a change. You can save the lives of thousands of people–men, women, children, senior citizens. It is time to move forward. No more finger-pointing, no more complaining about other organizations’ positions.

If we make the point that fire is a problem and that we know the solutions, when ordinances concerning sprinklers or other fire prevention measures come up, there will be more universal acceptance and less opposition. We can be the ones making the message, driving the issue–literally, in the driver’s seat instead of reacting.

We have an incredibly powerful platform–we are the good guys, the fire service. One of the highest rated in terms of public acceptance and approval. Everyone loves a firefighter; let’s capitalize on this. Just like the forthcoming elections, this is an opportunity for change. Positive change. Lifesaving change.

Ed Comeau is the publisher of Campus Firewatch, a monthly electronic newsletter focusing on the issues of campus fire safety. He is a founder and past director of the Center for Campus Fire Safety and is a former chief fire investigator for the National Fire Protection Association.

More info: www.campus-firewatch.com

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