Preventing fireS through public education initiatives is one of the most cost-effective endeavors a fire department can undertake. Public fire education is a skill similar to technical rescue and hazardous materials response in that it takes specially trained personnel with capital resources. Granted, public education should not place personnel within an immediately dangerous to life and health environment, but, frequently, fire departments fail to fully realize the unique demands and requirements of a proactive fire education initiative.

According to the United States Fire Administration, “Children under age 5 are twice as likely to die in a fire as the rest of us. In fact, toddlers age 3 to 4 actually cause a large number of home fires by playing with lighters and matches.”

(1) The eight picture boards are stored and transported in a large portfolio case. The case is normally kept in the public education trailer along with other instructional materials and handouts. (Photos by author.)

The Brighton Area (MI) Fire Department’s public fire education initiative is based on these statistics. Firefighters must attempt to maximize public education to teach children about fire safety. Sometimes, the primary focus of the fire education message is relegated to a secondary position. Early in my career, I witnessed a well-intentioned engineer’s teaching a group of four-year-olds the physics of a centrifugal pump. Although the group of children was mesmerized standing next to the engine company, I doubt this hydraulics lesson would help them if their house were on fire.


To aid in presentations and retain the educational focus, we created eight 3- × 4-foot foam boards. These boards are blown-up pages of the coloring books we distribute after presentations. The images were colored in for free by a local high school Interact Club (youth Rotary) as a service project. The pages were then laminated to these foam boards, which we transport in a large portfolio case. The cost of the printing and the foam boards was $400.

These boards provide an appealing visual aid that reinforces what the firefighter or our robotic fire engine is describing. The boards are self-sufficient; we do not have to depend on an LCD or overhead projector. They also serve as a point of reference for the fire personnel giving the presentation. Before the boards were available, firefighters taught their own unique fire safety presentation. Now, we provide a uniform, age-appropriate presentation to all groups.

For children through the first grade, the fire safety message is kept very simple; we use the National Fire Protection Association curriculum. Firefighters are prompted by the one or two sentences that appear on the boards along with the picture. For students in the second or a higher grade, we use the same boards but go much more in depth about the subject areas. We also engage in much more class interaction and analyze potential scenarios. We continually improve the curriculum according to advice given to us by teachers within our school district.

(2) These picture boards were created with the assistance of some local high school students. They ensure that firefighters provide a uniform fire safety message.

These boards and our robotic fire engine are transported in a trailer that matches our apparatus color scheme. The sides of the trailer have fire safety messages and list major contributors to our fire education program. On-duty staff members present most of the programs. If an alarm is received, the trailer can be quickly unhitched, allowing the crew to respond to the alarm. This concept has worked much better than our previous approach of constantly trying to load and unload presentation materials into fire apparatus.


We realized several years ago that not all firefighters enjoy or are good at public speaking. Often, the least senior person was assigned to give presentations. This forced assignment would usually be all too evident to the public, and we were doing a disservice to our employees and the community. Personnel should be screened before being assigned to public education, as they are for other specialty areas. All personnel may be asked to assist in the programs by performing tasks such as donning bunker gear with SCBA and assisting children into and out of the fire apparatus, but the presentations are conducted by a core group of firefighters who have shown interest, present a professional appearance, possess a solid firefighting background, and are good public speakers.

(3) A robotic fire truck, along with the picture boards, is used for younger audiences.

Fire education programs require a significant amount of time and resources. Coordinators of such programs must keep up with fire safety trends and take advantage of the great courses on this subject offered through the National Fire Academy and at FDIC. At their core, proactive fire safety programs hopefully will prevent fire fatalities. At their periphery, they will build strong community relationships and foster a positive image for your fire department.

MICHAEL KENNEDY is a career lieutenant and an 11-year veteran with the Brighton Area (MI) Fire Department. He has a B.A. in political science from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and is completing a master of public administration degree from Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti. He is a certified state fire instructor and serves as an adjunct faculty member at Lansing Community College.

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