Fire Safety Education: Who’s In?

By Tom Kiurski

There have been many studies over the years that indicate that the United States is lagging behind most other countries in terms of fire deaths, injuries, and property losses. How can a country that has the resources that we have be lagging behind in so many ways? The reasons are many, and the road ahead is long. Stay with me and learn a brief history of where we came from and see if you are willing to help your citizens by keeping the movement in the right direction.

We have come a long way in recent decades. Our annual civilian fire deaths rates were approximately 12,000 in the early 1970s but have been creeping down into the mid 3,000s as of recently. The widespread use of smoke alarms and campaigns designed to keep them operational could be a major source of the decreases. The increased involvement of firefighters in delivering messages of fire and life safety may well be another major source.

We have no lack of fire suppression technology in the United States. We have advanced suppression systems that can be designed for any hazard you throw our way, building designers who can compartmentalize many of the hazards that we encounter, flame-resistant construction materials and alarm systems that can boggle the mind. Unfortunately, most of this technology is installed in public and business places while most fire deaths occur in the home.

Research has shown us that many other countries place a higher emphasis on fire prevention and expend fewer resources on suppression activities. The United States has always place a higher emphasis on suppression resources and less on fire prevention. Other countries have as much as 10 percent of their personnel and budget going to fire prevention whereas the average in the United States is around three percent. 

The term “fire victim” is used often as you hear or read news stories involving fire. If someone has helped cause the fire, through act or omission, are they really a “victim” of fire or a victim of their own carelessness? Our insurance companies pay out billions of dollars to people who started or who played a major part in causing the fire they are reporting. In the U.S., we reach out with fundraisers to those who have suffered fire losses, whereas other countries show cultural rejection of those careless around fire. Insurance companies in other countries rarely give full reimbursement to those suffering from fire losses because of their own carelessness.

Most of us are not in a position to make major changes in the above areas. The small contribution that we can make is to take every opportunity to support our mission of educating the public about the dangers of fire. This education can have a huge impact on reducing fire deaths, injuries, and losses. 

When asked to do a station tour, spend a few minutes gathering age-appropriate materials as handouts after the tour. Make sure you integrate educational messages alongside the entertaining features of the tour. Although it is nice to show kids the fire truck and large nozzles, they get little education from that. Showing them what a firefighter in full turnout gear looks like will arm them for the possibility of a future encounter with the fire service–a very worthwhile educational event to show the tour group.

Our fire prevention personnel have probably cut back on the amount of educational programs they deliver to the various audiences in your community because of the financial crisis. Offer to “adopt” the school that your children attend and be the firefighter who assists that school with their fire safety educational efforts. In addition, you can visit business and social groups during the workday that meet in your response area. By staying in service, citizens will be aware that you may have to leave at a moment’s notice, but you will have made the effort to meet with those in your community and allow them to live safer lives with the information you present to them. 

Mentor those in your crews about educating the public. It is part of our job description and can be quite enjoyable. A station tour would be much more enjoyable if several members teamed up for the presentation, instead of assigning it to the member with the lowest seniority. Are those members prepared and well-versed in delivering this presentation? Have you taken the time to give them the main points for a tour, told them how to interact with children and adults, and shown them the materials that your department has for handouts?

To truly make a difference in the lives of our citizens, give them the information they need to live a more fire-safe life. Hopefully, they will spread this to other groups as they move on to colleges, apartments, and other living arrangements. The dramatic rescue, although life changing for that person, doesn’t happen that often in a career. The opportunities that you have to educate your citizens happen far more often. Are you prepared, ready, and willing to take that challenge? 

Tom Kiurski is training coordinator, 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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