Using Size-Up Skills to Build an Effective Fire and Life Safety Program

by Tilda Mims

Firefighters train early in their careers to size-up an incident before, during, and after action–not just on a working fire but on every call, every time. The reasoning is that each incident is a distinctive set of circumstances that demands a unique strategy. Taking time to evaluate and reevaluate the situation helps decide the best strategy for success and reduces risk of the unexpected.

Why not apply the principles of size-up to fire and life safety education? Why continue with a one-size-fits-all approach when every audience contains as many variables as a three-alarm fire? Using a few of the more popular size-up procedures as a guide, one can consider audience characteristics to craft a strategy that will transform a series of presentations into a fire and life safety program to influence behavior change.

Size-up begins with the first report of the fire or, in this case, when the request for a fire and life safety education (FLSE) event arrives. As an example, let’s look at a typical request for kindergarten students to visit the fire station during a study of community helpers. Beyond the basics of date, time, and number of children, what information would help tailor an event especially for these children?

How about asking the caller if any of the children have experienced a fire? Do any of the children live in mobile homes, older homes, or public housing? A simple and informative question may simply be, “What would you like the firefighters to know about your students?” Prior to a Tuscaloosa station visit a few years ago, the teacher’s response to this query was “always assume the children are home alone.” What a powerful bit of information! Using that critical knowledge, the firefighters talked to the children about preparing for an emergency by making “their” escape plan with no mention of practicing with mom and dad. How often have we talked to children about sitting down with the family to draw out an escape plan and the importance of practicing it regularly? How effective is that one-size-fits-all message with a child who is home alone after school and often into the night?

A key purpose of size-up is to reduce or prevent unexpected changes in the fire’s behavior. Today’s classrooms contain diversity far beyond skin color and native language, and it is risky to prepare a program without considering the unique physical, mental, and sensory characteristics of your audience.

For example, are you prepared to teach crawling low under smoke if one of the children is using a wheelchair? Will your tried-and-true presentation on firefighter gear work with visually impaired children? Don’t assume the teacher will alert you to special considerations, because the diversity may be routine to him. He may expect the station’s restrooms to be wheelchair accessible and the safety trailer to have a ramp.

Size-up is dynamic; tactics often change as new information and circumstances come to light. An effective educator learns to read the audience and make needed changes on the fly. At a recent after-school program, several of the children clapped their hands over their ears at the sight of the fire engine. The engine company recognized this protective behavior as a characteristic of an autism spectrum disorder and quickly assured them there would be no sudden sounds. The kids relaxed, the lesson went smoothly, and everyone had plenty of notice before there were lights or noises. A simple adjustment made a world of difference.

In Public Speaking 101, students learn to adjust their presentation based on feedback from their audience. This is good information for the fire and life safety educator. Is your audience looking at you? Are they responsive to your message? Are they fidgeting and shuffling? Teachers can and should modify students’ behaviors for a good learning environment, but perhaps you are the one that needs to change. If you trot out the same presentation regardless of the audience, time of day, or venue, it is like fighting every fire the same way.

The attention span of a child is variable, not only from child to child but also subject to subject. Research suggests that an average child’s formal attention span in minutes is about as long as the age of a child. An average five-year-old should be able to concentrate on an activity for five minutes. If you need more time on the subject, you must be prepared to change the delivery and activity every four or five minutes.

Children (and their parents!) love to hear firefighters tell stories. Take advantage of this by preparing a few social stories to slip into a presentation. A social story describes a situation with focus on what the child’s reaction should be rather than the price paid for making the incorrect decision. One of our firefighters likes to tell children about getting a call late one night to go to a house fire. He tells them how happy all the firefighters were to see the family at their meeting place by the mailbox. Simple? Yes. Effective? Absolutely! Changing from the same-old, same-old is more entertaining for the kids and the presenters.

After-action size-up of the fire and life safety event needn’t be lengthy, but it is important. Like the other phases of size-up, this isn’t an officers-only task. Everyone involved should have the opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of the program so they can determine the best strategy and tactics for the next one. What were your expectations? Were there any surprises? What worked and what didn’t? What information would have helped to better prepare?

Complacency on the fireground is risky. It can be a risk for the educator, too, after the umpteenth station tour or school program. One way to keep it fresh and interesting is to challenge your perspective of how individuals learn. A few years ago, we asked a few special educators if we could present a program for their students. We then expanded into self-contained classrooms, residential facilities, and treatment programs for children and adults with multiple physical disabilities, mental retardation, autism spectrum disorders, mental illness, substance abuse problems, and other challenges. This is a true win-win experience; we learn new teaching strategies from the teachers and the individuals are better prepared. The frequent interaction also helps us identify characteristics of these individuals when they are part of a traditional setting.

If your fire and life safety talks are not bringing the desired change in behavior, consider size-up as a tool to determine the best strategy for success. Use your skills and experience as a firefighter to select the tools, time, resources, and techniques needed to change a calendar filled with presentations into an effective fire and life safety education program that prepares your personnel to capture the interest of your audiences.

Tilda Mims is the fire and life safety educator for the Tuscaloosa (AL) Fire and Rescue Service. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Alabama and is a 2011 graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy.

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