They’re Not Listening to Me! Reevaluating Your Fire Safety Messaging

By Becki White

As a prevention specialist, I’m often frustrated by the fact that people continue to be injured and killed in preventable fires. I wonder why the work of hundreds of firefighters and fire educators spreading the fire-safety message isn’t sinking in. It’s not for lack of effort. I would argue that it may be because we aren’t choosing the right message — or we parrot messages without understanding their true meaning or how our audiences interpret them.

Look at the top five messages you spread — the ones you mention in front of every audience, with the content altered to fit their age and comprehension. What messages are you most passionate about? Mine include:

  • smoke-alarm maintenance
  • meeting places
  • fire prevention
    • cooking
    • candles
    • heating
    • smoking

When we’re out there “selling” fire safety, we need to have passion. There’s an old saying, “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Generally that’s used in the context of how people treat others, but it’s true with messaging as well. People will care more about your messages when they see that you care. If you can speak with conviction about something you truly understand and believe in, they will listen.

Sometimes, though, because of time constraints, budget, or lack of training and preparation, we have to deliver a canned message–something we may not be passionate about but that is iconic in the history of fire presentations, so there’s pressure to continue spreading it.

I’m going to explore two of those messages more thoroughly: “Change Your Clock — Change Your Battery” and “Stop, Drop, and Roll.” Both are easy, call-to-action messages that are often heard but just as often off-target or misinterpreted.

Change Your Clock — Change Your Battery: As fire service members, we get frustrated with people who don’t change batteries in their smoke alarms. This one simple act can save lives! Why is it a problem in household after household? Complacency! But we own some of the problem. The fire service loves catchphrases — those themes we can stand behind, the ones that do the teaching for us. And “Change Your Clock — Change Your Battery” is a perfect example. We just say that phrase and people should obey; no need to explain further, right? But when people ask, “Why should I replace a three-year battery every six months?” the answer is usually something like, “Because you could die without working smoke alarms.” Though this statement is true, it doesn’t answer the question. Sometimes a dramatic answer hides the fact that the real reason isn’t known. We haven’t thought about it.

When I’ve challenged firefighters and fire educators on why they spread that message every six months, they tell me, “We change our clocks twice a year, so we should change the batteries twice a year.” Well, even Energizer, the company that developed that phrase 25 years ago says:”For 25 years, Energizer, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and more than 6,400 fire departments nationwide have worked tirelessly to remind people of the simple, life-saving habit of changing and testing the batteries in smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors when setting the clocks back from daylight-saving time.” (Emphasis is mine.)

It says “Changing the clocks back,” not changing them both ways. We change our clocks back in the fall. Energizer capitalized on the clock change because everyone does it. So, the message should be change batteries once a year. Suggest homeowners pick a time during the year when they will change all the batteries in their smoke alarms throughout the house. Energizer has created a great program; capitalize on it if it works for you and your community. I choose the holiday season. Santa is a big fan of fire safety! At my house, he gives everyone in the family a battery in their stocking and leaves a few extra by the cookie plate. Together we go around and replace all the batteries. It’s a great family tradition, and it’s only once a year.

As you can see, you need to understand your message so you can thoughtfully answer questions. (Unfortunately, “Because I said so,” doesn’t cut it..) To answer the battery question thoughtfully, I would say, “We ask people to change batteries in their alarms once a year because years can get away from us. If we set a memorable time every year, we can make sure it happens.” When you focus on “once a year” rather than the clock change, you can expand your smoke alarm maintenance message to other times during the year. This spring, my message was “Change your clocks, check your batteries,” with an emphasis on checking for working smoke alarms and practicing family escape plans.

Stop, Drop, and Roll: This phrase is repeated throughout the country in countless classrooms and fire stations. But the situation you’re responding to (specifically, “If your clothes catch fire…”) isn’t delivered as effectively as the action of rolling around on the floor. I have gone into preschool, kindergarten, and first-grade classrooms and asked, “What would we do if there was a fire in the room?” The students chorus back, “Stop, drop and roll!”

Obviously, there’s a disconnect here. They’ve heard the message loud and clear: “Fire = stop, drop and roll.” But does it? No! What about exiting? Meeting place? Smoke alarms? Another thought: how about teaching prevention tips rather than focusing on reactions? Reaction and survival messages are important. But I would assert that not having a fire at all would be even better. And empowering kids to be fire safe is fundamental. Teaching them how to react if they are in a fire can be given time, but not be the sole focus of the only 20 minutes you may get in front of them this year.

Look at your most common messages, and evaluate your teaching objectives to see if your messages are getting you there. The fact that you learned stop, drop and roll growing up doesn’t mean you’re required to teach it. When we change our clocks, don’t just tell people to change batteries, tell them why.

If you want to use those messages, go beyond “what” and tell people “why.” If you truly believe in the message you’re sharing, and you can explain why you selected that message over every other message, it means you take it seriously — and they will, too.

Becki WhiteBecki 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.


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