By Becki White
In my role as an advisor for fire service professionals giving presentations, I am frequently asked to review and revise prevention programs. I am always excited to go watch someone else present, mostly because I am looking for tips on how to enhance my own teaching methods or lessons. However, I have gotten better at finding out on the front end what it is that people truly want me there to do. Many just want me to justify the program they have in place. They aren’t interested in hearing what could be improved or what needs to be abandoned.
I should back up a bit and tell you a little about my personality. I am a doer. I am a resource gatherer and disseminator. I want the best for people and for their programs. Most of all I want the best for the citizens. I am not the type of person that would stroke your ego or pat you on the back just because you’re a nice person. I’m there to evaluate the program. The program should be able to stand on its own with or without you. You should be able to separate yourself and your personal feelings from the program. Yes, you spent a lot of blood, sweat, and possibly tears creating the program and an enormous amount of energy presenting it and bringing it to where it is…but it doesn’t define you. I am proud of the lessons I have created. I am proud of the projects I have worked on. But if I can’t separate myself from those programs, others won’t either. What will happen to those programs when I’m no longer with the organization? If they are tied directly to me, they are likely to be abandoned when I’m no longer there. Do you want that to happen to the programs you have spent all your energy on?
Think about the legacy you are creating for the department and the citizens of your community. You must establish goals and make sure that your program is continually meeting those goals. Challenge yourself to change little things every time you present or every year at the very least to make sure that your presentation is meeting the fire safety needs of the community you serve. When I ask someone why they do the things they do – show a particular dated video or practice a skill that is rarely used in real life, like “stop, drop, and roll”—I am met with two common answers. The first is, “Because we’ve always done it that way.” The second is, “Because the teachers and students love it.”
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Let’s tackle the second one first. Speaking as a former teacher, the teachers don’t really care what you’re doing up there. They are happy that you are taking the time and the attention of the kids. Did you notice them frantically correcting papers or doing other paperwork at the back of the room? That’s because they don’t have enough time in the day to get that stuff done. If you were lucky enough to have them sit attentively during your presentation year after year, I’m impressed – and maybe, good for you, they do love you. Generally, teachers aren’t going to go out of their way to hurt your feelings or give you tips on your program, unless you specifically ask in an evaluation: Was the video shown a valuable use of our time? Would you recommend using this video again next year? If you don’t ask, you won’t get feedback on it.
As to the other response, “Because we’ve always done it that way”…ugh! Time for change. I may alienate some of you with my next example, but hear me out. “Stop, drop, and roll” is synonymous with the fire service. Kids hear “fire” and they respond in chorus: “Stop, drop, and roll!” Right there is the problem. I go into classrooms of kindergarten, first and second grade and I ask them: “If the boxes/curtain (whatever) in the corner were on fire, what should we do?” A majority will chorus back: “Stop, drop, and roll.” That should illustrate why we need to reevaluate our messaging. I only teach this element when I am preparing for Halloween fire safety, because of the flowing, polyester costumes around the unattended candles when kids’ minds are sugar-focused not safety focused. It’s also a good concept to reinforce during summer fire safety presentations when we’re talking about campfires. I’m not saying that “Stop, drop, and roll” is not an effective message. I eliminated it from the other sessions because there isn’t a high rate of children catching on fire. I would rather spend my time talking about how to best learn their address or about smoke alarms, meeting places, and sleeping with their bedroom door closed.
The business world prides itself on being goal-driven and results-oriented. Maybe we should take a cue from that. Identify your goals as a department or your goals as the prevention bureau. More personally, identify the handful of messages that you want the kids to bring home with them tonight. Consider those your key messages. What type of evaluation piece(s) do you have in place? Do you have teachers evaluate the program? Do you evaluate the students’ knowledge gain? When? Do you follow up? Do you have the kids evaluate the program? Do you ask for what would make your presentation better in the future? If you do ask questions, do you read them? Do they give you useful information? If either of those is no—then don’t bother asking. If you can’t use the information or are too busy to even consider what you might gain from that information, then don’t make someone else take the time to answer the questions. If you’re not getting the information you need, ask better questions. Find questions that will get to the point of what you’re trying to find out. Be blunt.
- Was this program a good use of your class time?
- Were the messages delivered in a manner that kept the students engaged?
- Was the material presented using vocabulary that students this age can comprehend?
- Is there anything you think could be removed or changed for our next presentation?
- Is there anything you would like to see added?
You won’t always get the answer you want to hear but remember it’s not about you–it’s about creating a program that works for your customers/citizens.
When you have time in front of a group of kids, you shouldn’t be giving them all the information you have. You should limit the number of pieces of new information to their age. If you are talking to kindergarteners, you are pushing it if you have five messages in there; six for first grade; seven for second; and so on. This only applies until you get to around seven or eight messages, and then you should stop. Phone numbers were originally designed in seven-digit formations because that’s the largest number data pieces that your brain can retain in a string (https://human-memory.net/short-term-working-memory/). I have my fundamental four messages, the things I tell to any group I am in front of. Granted I change the content per group, but I cover the fundamental four concepts with everyone:
1. Working smoke alarms
2. Sleeping with bedroom doors closed
3. Escape planning/meeting place
4. Prevention, at the level they can participate. Cooking safety, candle safety, etc.
I recently read an article that mentioned that prevention isn’t working. Not true. In my state the population has increased 7 percent over the past 10 years, yet the number of fires statewide has gone down 11 percent. Something is working. Those that say the messaging isn’t working, I challenge you…pull out a post-it-note and write down your major themes. Those things you push in your department in public education and prevention. List as many as you can think of. Now look at your list. Are you teaching skills for preventing fires or are you teaching how to react to fires? If you’re teaching reaction techniques, then you can’t assess prevention. It’s like grading a hockey player on how well he can hit a curve ball. Even looking at my fundamental four, only one is prevention. Smoke alarms involve reaction. Sleeping with the door closed pertains to survival. Having a meeting place/escape planning related to reaction. Candle safety and cooking safety relate to prevention, whereas “Stop, drop, and roll” is a reaction. Hopefully that exercise has opened your eyes a bit to what you are spending your time teaching “Fire Prevention” is actually doing. It’s mostly reaction and survival AFTER a fire has started. This is still important messaging, but those messages will not decrease the likelihood of your audience avoiding having a fire.
It’s not us that are failing, it’s what messages we are delivering, and how they are being delivered. Fire prevention and safety educators must assess and evaluate these programs to make them better.
Becki White has spent more than two decades in classrooms and fire training rooms. She has a master’s degree in Education and has obtained Executive Fire Officer designation. She has served more than 17 years in the fire service, in every level from firefighter to chief officer, including time as a statewide fire and life safety educator. She runs Elevate Learning Consulting, which specializes in developing and delivering presentations, training program management, and public education. She serves as an advisory board member for Fire Engineering and FDIC International as well as the Minnesota Board of Firefighter Training and Education.