Using Stories to Make Your Fire Messages Stick

By Becki White

The human brain uses a complicated process to store information. Essentially, it creates pathways to sets of data. As with paths through the woods, the high-traffic ones are easier to travel than those that are hardly ever used. When you teach fire safety concepts to children, you’re often stumbling down neglected paths instead of using the ones that have been mentally cleared and paved.

Additionally, relying on your adult understanding of the world may not be useful in teaching fire safety to kids; they don’t have much knowledge or experience, and they haven’t stored mental images of the things you say they should “watch out for.” Your message may not get filed away correctly in their brains, and that makes it less likely to be accessible when it’s needed. If we find a connection to a path they’ve traveled frequently, it will be more accessible. Use of storytelling and creative imagery helps kids process unfamiliar information and store it in an accessible place.

For this article, I will talk about three messages that I frequently use to deliver fire safety messages to younger audiences: “Get low and go” (or crawl low under smoke), “Know your address for 911,” and “Stop, drop, and roll” (SDR). To convey each of these messages, I use stories that I’ve created to help kids attach them to pathways that are frequently traveled in their brains.


Get Low and Go

One of the most successful examples of storytelling to reach children’s clear pathways is explaining to them to “Get Low and Go” under smoke. As firefighters, we’ve seen smoke bank down, creating a thick layer above us. Many adults and almost all children are unable to picture this in their minds. So, we need to find an equivalent image that’s already located along one of their well-used paths.

The lesson: I ask kids where they’ve seen fire and smoke. They give examples like bonfires or fireplaces. I ask them what happens to the smoke in those fires. They explain that it goes up, sometimes expanding the image to “it goes up and away.”

Given that perspective, think about the message we’re sending them, which would be: Crawl low under smoke that they think goes up and away. I explain to kids that smoke and fire acts sort of like a bathtub. (There are very few people who have no familiarity with a bathtub.) I have the kids picture a bathtub in their minds. Mom or dad pulls the lever and the water flows out of the faucet (photo 1). The water comes down in a stream and fills the bottom of the bathtub all the way. Then, the water gets deeper in the tub. (I use my hands to accentuate the story.) I explain that fire and smoke works the same way, but upside down. The smoke goes up, spreads all the way around the room, and then gets deeper. That’s why we have smoke alarms on the ceiling or high on the walls. And since the smoke is above us, we crawl low under it to get out. The kids can picture this, and they will likely think about it when they see their bathtubs. This story, and the fire safety information it conveys, will attach itself to a brain pathway that is traveled frequently.

(1) Tying smoke behavior to water filling a tub or sink helps explain smoke alarm placement and the concept of crawling low under smoke.


Knowing Your Address

An important lesson relayed by fire and police departments is how to call 911. With cell phones in use by people of all ages, ensuring that every child knows a home address is more essential than it was when landlines provided callers’ locations. I taught elementary school for many years, and teaching addresses was always a struggle. It was a difficult thing to remember, even for my third- and fourth-graders. So, I used something they were very familiar with: first and last names.

The lesson: I ask the kids how many of them have a first name and last name; I explain that their houses also have a first and last name. We use letters for our names, but our houses use numbers for their first name. Since it’s hard for us to remember a name with numbers, our houses wear nametags (Figure 1) so we can learn their names (house numbers). I ask the kids to go home and say hi to their house; the poor thing has been sitting there wearing its “nametag” just waiting for someone to say hi to it. And, I remind them to use the house’s name (house numbers); don’t just say, “Hi, house!” After a few days of the kids greeting their houses by number, they started to remember the sequence of numbers.

The last name, I explain, works like our last names. Most of the people in our families share a last name, just like the houses on the same street. If I live on Maple Street, my house’s last name is Maple Street. The neighbor’s house next door is also Maple Street. So, your house’s name is 1234 Maple Street (Figure 1).


FIGURE 1. A great way to teach children how to remember their address is to associate it with learning someone’s name. 


Most of the kids know their street name, so learning their address is a faster method. And again, the first-and-last name pathway is well-worn by the time a child is in early grade school; I’ve just added new information in a place where it will remain accessible. There’s a bonus to this teaching method, too—in an emergency, it helps kids identify addresses on buildings other than “home.”


Stop, Drop, and Roll

SDR is a concept taught on nearly every fire department visit. However, children have no pathways in their brains for the concept of “clothes on fire.” They can’t even imagine it. (And why would they?  Do we want kids walking around thinking their clothes may start on fire?) If SDR is an important message to deliver, we need to find something with which kids are familiar and relate the idea to that. I deliver the SDR message only when I’m speaking to scouting groups (i.e., campfire safety) or covering Halloween safety (such as pumpkins and flowing costumes). SDR is particularly relevant to those audiences.

Start by painting a visual image in the kids’ minds such as, “We’re sitting by a campfire”—something they have done or seen images of so they can start a mental pathway. Continue with, “Sometimes, embers or little sparks fly out of the campfire. How many of you have seen that?”  Many of them will raise their hands. (As you read this, you’re probably picturing that fire, too.) Then explain that sometimes those embers can land on people’s clothes and cause them to start on fire (photo 2). Now, you’re ready to deliver the message you want them to remember: If this happens, stay calm. “Stop running around, drop to the ground, and roll back and forth to smother the fire.” Explain that the purpose for rolling on the ground is to take the oxygen away from the fire; that’s why we stop running and why we roll slowly. Give them all the information so that SDR isn’t stored with “fire” in general.  I often find that when you ask kids what they should do if there’s a fire, their immediate reaction is to yell, “Stop, drop, and roll!” That is the perfect example of information being stored incorrectly. In their head, fire equals SDR, which is not what you want them to think.

(2) Stop, drop and roll is often associated with “fire” in general. Tying the concept to embers from a bonfire or a lit candle will help to clarify the lesson.


Consider the messages you think are important enough to include in your presentations, and make sure you are really reaching your audience. Use those pathways that are prerouted; find something familiar to your audience and draw a parallel image. The information you attach will be revisited when they travel that roadway for other reasons—like taking a bath or sitting by the campfire—and your lesson will not only survive the complicated storage process, but it’ll be ready for access when it’s needed to prevent injury or to facilitate escape from a fire.

Photos courtesy of Figure by author.


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.



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