Firefighter for a Day: A Tale of Two Cities

By Marsha Giesler and Tom Kiurski

In many communities across the United States, kids are sharpening their crayons as they prepare to enter their local fire department-sponsored coloring contest. There are many ways to organize an event such as this, with many more ways to select and reward your winners. The important results are that the children in your community have fun, the contest winners have a day to remember, and the fire department receives good publicity.

First, get together with members of your department to draw up a plan for your contest. Outline how you plan to publicize the event, make entry forms available, collect the forms, choose the winners, and finalize arrangements for items/events to be included in the winners’ packages. This will all have to be authorized by the chief and possibly the mayor/city manager. Don’t forget to let your line firefighters know about the event as well.

The picture you choose to have the kids color should be a copyright-free drawing, or you will need to obtain permission from the copyright holder. While there are plenty of coloring pages on the Internet, you may wish to choose a commercially published firefighter coloring book. The coloring book companies will usually give permission if you send them a letter outlining your intended use and let them know that no money will be made on your end through use of the picture.

Livonia (MI) Fire & Rescue Program

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In Livonia (MI) Fire & Rescue, we call our event the “Firefighter for a Day” coloring contest and hold it in conjunction with our Fire Prevention Week Open House. The coloring contest forms are printed ahead of time and distributed to all schools in the city, both public and private, during the month of September. Working closely with the schools has definite advantages. They help us distribute the coloring contest forms and the flyers for the Open House by sorting them into the smaller “classroom size” packets. Check with them early to see if they can do this for you. If so, ask on what date they would need to receive the flyers/forms to be able to get the packets to the students about 10 school days prior to the event.


Photos 1 and 2 by Marsha Giesler; photo 3 by Tom Kiurski.
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Our deadline for entry is the day of our Fire Prevention Week Open House. Students can drop off the completed forms to any fire station prior to that. We also have a supply of entry forms at a table at our event, with pens and crayons for “on the spot” entries from those children who attend our Open House.


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Believing that the program would probably have the most interest for elementary aged students, we initially limited the contest to kids in grades one through six who attended a Livonia school and were Livonia residents. After the success of our first event, which included one winner citywide, we moved up to two winners in the city: one in the lower grades (1-3) and one in the upper grades (4-6). Having completed 10 years of this event, our current contest has four winners: one from kindergarten, one from first and second grades, one from third and fourth grades, and one from fifth and sixth grades.


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The rules for entering our contest are stated on each entry form in the lower lefthand corner of the standard-size sheet of paper. The mandatory information to be filled in on the lower righthand corner of the form includes the child’s name, grade, school, and telephone number. We stress that this information is mandatory, since any missing information usually will not be supplied by the school because of privacy laws.

We arrive at the winner’s classroom shortly before lunch on the designated day, where we meet the winner and then invite the class to go outside with us to “send the winner off.” The winner is then loaded onto a fire truck and driven to the local McDonalds, where we are met by restaurant staff who make sure we have an area to sit and plenty of food to eat. Once finished, we drive the winner back to school on the fire truck. Calls must be made ahead of time to coordinate everything with the winner’s family, school, and teacher and the local McDonalds where the winner will have lunch.

Downers Grove (IL) Fire Department Program

In an effort to get more Downers Grove families to design and practice Exit Drills in the Home (EDITH), the Downers Grove (IL) Fire Department sponsors a contest for all third-grade children. Third grade is the level at which the department concentrates its greatest number of “Learn Not To Burn” classes. Each month, the third-grade classes of all schools are presented with a new lesson regarding fire safety. In October, the public education officer explains the importance of EDITH; demonstrates the proper way to develop a home escape plan; and fields questions about saving pets, calling 9-1-1, and choosing a family meeting place.

To submit an entry for the contest, a child brings a form home to his parents. Once the family members draw and practice an EDITH plan, they fill out the form and indicate their family meeting place. All entries are mailed to the department headquarters. In November, two names are drawn. Because the contest has become so popular, the department hosts two winners now—one each from the north and the south sides of town on two different days.

The winner is allowed to choose a friend and a teacher to come along to the station and school in the “big red limousine.” Firefighter Dale Smith, the idea man behind this project, drives the ladder truck to the winner’s home in the morning. After video and photo opportunities for the family and neighbors, Smith brings the winner and friends to the station to enjoy breakfast with the firefighters. Once the winners arrive back at school, classmates, the principal, and the entire K-3 wing of the school greet them outside. The winners are also given department T-shirts.

This year, the department received more than 350 entries. That’s 350 more families practicing EDITH than without the contest! We have been hosting this program for nine years.

We have made a number of changes to the program over the years.

  • Initially we offered the contest to the kids only and did not get as great a response as we had hoped. Once we realized teachers don’t get to ride in fire trucks, we included them. Teachers began to make this a homework assignment and hand deliver the entries to the station. Kids like having their teachers come along for their special day anyway.
  • Since we have so many schools and students participating, the chief suggested we expand the program to in-clude two children from two different schools instead of just one winner.
  • After the first year, Smith suggested we begin the day earlier and bring the winner, friend, and teacher to the station for breakfast first.
  • We now send a menu to the winner prior to the event. By doing this, the child can choose the breakfast in advance. (Usually the kids are so excited about the ride that breakfast is not all that important. While the firefighters enjoy a big breakfast, the kids are thrilled that they get to have a sugary cereal. We let them take the rest of the box with them!)
  • We now send a note or make a phone call directly to the school principal to announce the “big event.” The first few years, the teacher served as the liaison for us. Some teachers get more excited about this than others, and there is more principal involvement and excitement if the department works directly with the administration.

MARSHA GIESLER has served as the public education and information officer for the Downers Grove (IL) Fire Department since 1991. She was also trained as a fire prevention officer and has served as an instructor in fire prevention and public education on the state and national levels.

TOM KIURSKI is a lieutenant, a paramedic, and the director of fire safety education for Livonia (MI) Fire & Rescue. His book Creating a Fire-Safe Community: A Guide for Fire Safety Educators (Fire Engineering, 1999) is a guide for bringing the safety message to all segments of the community efficiently and economically.

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