By Becki White
In the fire service we look forward to October, when we open the doors of our fire stations and invite the community in to learn about how the fire department operates and how to stay safe from fire. Fire Prevention Week themes are determined by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The theme is usually announced early in summer, giving departments time to prepare for fall open houses.
The History of Fire Prevention Week
Fire Prevention Week is observed in October during the week that includes October 9, the second and most destructive day of the Great Chicago Fire. The Great Chicago Fire started on October 8, 1871 and killed more than 250 people, destroying more than 17,400 structures across 2,000 acres.
The same day the Great Chicago Fire started in Illinois, the Peshtigo forest fire was racing across northeast Wisconsin. The worse of the two fires, the Peshtigo Fire killed 1,152 people and burned 1.2 million acres, ravaging 16 Wisconsin towns. Even though the Peshtigo Fire was more devastating, the Chicago Fire is more infamous–and it’s the one tied to Fire Prevention Week.
NFPA records say that in 1911, 40 years after the event, the Fire Marshals Association of North America (today known as the International Fire Marshals Association) decided the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire should be observed annually in a way that would educate the public about fire prevention.
In 1920, President Woodrow Wilson issued the first National Fire Prevention Day proclamation. Since 1922, Fire Prevention Week has been observed during the Sunday-through-Saturday period that includes October 9. This makes Fire Prevention Week the longest-running public health-and-safety observance on record, according to the National Archives and Records Administration’s Library Information Center.
2013 Fire Prevention Week Theme
This year’s Fire Prevention Week (FPW) theme is “Prevent Kitchen Fires.” As we know, roughly half of all residential fires start in the kitchen–a trend that has existed for over a decade–so we should take advantage of this year’s prevention theme and tie it to safe cooking practices in general: avoid hot liquid burns, keep kids and pets away from the stove and grill, keep cooking spaces clear of flammable items, and many more.
There are many resources out there on kitchen-fire prevention and safe cooking and grilling. Visit the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) and NFPA Web sites; they have lots of material you can print and use in your education efforts. The NFPA even has a Web site called Sparky.org, with games, videos, and activities about fire safety targeted at younger audiences.
Focus on Prevention
It is encouraging to see this year’s FPW theme focused on prevention. Many of our fire service messages have to do with life-preservation or reaction. These messages are important, because we want people to survive if they have a fire–but not having a fire in the first place is the key. Smoke alarms, escape planning, stop-drop-roll, using fire extinguishers, and home fire sprinklers are all response messages.
Please take a look at the messages you’re spreading in your community and assess whether they are prevention or reaction messages. Try to focus on prevention as often as you focus on reaction; if we can help people prevent fires, our citizens won’t need to deal with the loss associated with surviving a home fire.
If you want a little help with planning and preparing for an effective Fire Prevention Week Open House, ask questions; visit neighboring departments’ open houses to get new ideas. There are a lot of great events and prevention experts to tap into all around the country. Focus on educating your citizens about prevention and safety, and this Fire Prevention Week will be the best one yet.
Becki White is a Minnesota deputy state fire marshal and a captain in the Eden Prairie (MN) Fire Department. She has a master’s degree in teaching and learning and was an elementary teacher for 12 years. White has combined her passion for education with her knowledge and experience in the fire service to become a resource for fire and life safety educators. White is also the vice president of the North Star Women’s Firefighter Association, a nonprofit organization that assists with mentoring, networking, and training women in the fire service.
Images and planning guides for Fire Prevention Week promotions are available from the NFPA at fpw.org.
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