Fire on Display



Two familiar ideas combined to give public fire education an added dimension in Farmington Hills, Mich., by putting . . .

A classroom of young teenagers and preteens watched fire brighten the curtains hanging from a window, spread through the living room, and sweep up the chimney-like staircase. Minutes after witnessing the fire’s progress on videotape, they crossed the street and entered the burned house, where they attempted to identify the charred furnishings.

It was a fire safety lesson with a three-dimensional effect.

Neither live training burns nor the use of burned structures as educational tools are new ideas. However, conducting a training burn that the public can watch, either live or on videotape, may be a slightly different approach—one that could maximize resources, increase effectiveness, and raise public awareness. The Farmington Hills (Mich.) Fire Department took that approach in May, and the results were positive.

Sometimes it takes the experience of a fire to make the public more fire-aware and fire-safe. Too often, it takes a tragedy to get the public’s attention. By staging a fire, we can control the environment and get the desired impact without endangering valued property or creating a potential hazard.

Farmington Hills is a suburb of Detroit that’s growing quite rapidly. That growth has brought many real estate developers to the area searching for land on which to build new projects. If the land they find holds any structures slated for demolition, the fire department asks the developers to donate them for live training burns and other, related activities.

It just so happened that one such structure, a two-story, woodframe house, was located near a public middle school. Borrowing an idea from other fire departments that have developed postincident tours, we decided to stage the fire not only for our own training purposes, but also to educate the public on fire prevention and safety.

The idea of Project Open House was to furnish the house as one normally would, set a fire in one room, and then extinguish it. All events, from ignition to suppression and overhaul, were recorded on videotape and photographed with a 35mm camera. After the blaze, students would be allowed to tour the house.

We approached the middle school for several reasons. The most obvious was the proximity of the site to the school. Another was that we had missed this age group (ages 12 to 14) in our public education programs, which had been aimed primarily toward the elementary grades. A third reason was that this age group includes many latchkey children, w’ho are unsupervised at home after school until their parents return home from work. Finally, the middle school kids represent a large percentage of the baby-sitting population, which needs to know about the dangers of fire and the proper response to an emergency.

Fire on Display

Photos by Peter Baldwin

The school’s principal expressed some concern about liability and the students’ immaturity but, after some discussion, decided this would be worth trying once. The next step was to convince the district school administration that this was a good idea, and that proved even tougher than selling the principal. Nevertheless, the administration finally agreed that one class could go through the building and, if that proved successful, the remainder would follow.

Firefighters and other fire department personnel prepared the four-bedroom house for the event. Although the house was partially furnished, we got additional items for free from the local waste disposal company. And the department’s people cleaned the house enough to give it a lived-in look.

In addition to the furnishings, the department installed a batterypowered, ionization-type smoke detector in an acceptable location on each floor. This was to show the effectiveness of smoke detectors and the behavior of the smoke itself. (Although the fire severely damaged both detectors, they were still sounding when firefighters entered the house.)

Other prefire preparation included such things as leaving one bedroom door closed and closing all windows in that room but one. This was done to show how smoke travels and why sleeping with one’s bedroom door closed is a “fire-safe” thing to do.

Once this phase was completed (it required three or four hours of work), a fire was scheduled.

The plan was to simulate an electrical fire caused by a faulty and improperly placed extension cord (located under the couch), allow the fire to develop for 17 minutes, and then extinguish it. The time frame was based on realistic human reactions, allowing for the discovery of the fire, the contacting of the fire department, the response of apparatus with personnel, and the actual application of water onto the fire.

As an added twist, the middle school’s assistant principal was allowed to don fire equipment, watch the fire develop, and witness the extinguishment from inside the structure. This provided a civilian viewpoint, which proved motivational in the subsequent discussion of the fire.

Local news media had been contacted, so two television stations and the local newspaper covered the event from ignition through the actual open house.

The fire was set and put out. Then, by putting barrier tape in place to control the flow of students, the house was prepared to receive the visitors who would arrive on the following several days.

Before students crossed the street to the house, a firefighter made a presentation to each classroom. It included the videotape and photos, as well as the observations of the assistant principal who had witnessed the fire; she described how, despite several walkthroughs before the burn, she panicked when smoke filled the house and had to be helped out of the building. This convincing presentation, which permitted the students to see the “before” and “after” appearance of the house as well as how rapidly a small couch fire can develop into a serious house fire, was followed by a walk across the street to the open house.

Each classroom was escorted through the house by a firefighter. The students immediately saw the devastation in the room of origin as they tried to recognize the few remaining pieces of furniture. A twofoot by three-foot cardboard poster reminded them of the chronology of events, from first ignition, through the triggering of the smoke detectors’ alarms on both levels of the house, and concluding with the extinguishment of the blaze.

Each room had its own safety message as the tour progressed. The dining room had suffered much damage as an exposure to the living room. The kitchen, with its melted telephone, stressed the importance of staying as close to the floor as possible and leaving the home immediately to call for help from a neighbor’s phone. The stairway to the upstairs bedrooms demonstrated the chimney effect from the first-floor fire.

Two of the bedrooms at the top of the stairs each had a different lesson to relate. In the children’s bedroom, where the door and a window had been open during the fire, the heat and smoke had been intense. The screen over the room’s open window was clogged with black soot. Many of the toys were no longer recognizable.

On the other hand, the door of the master bedroom across the hall had been closed during the fire. After having seen the heat and smoke damage throughout the house, the visitors felt the dramatic impact when this door was opened to reveal absolutely no destruction or damage anywhere in the room. There was even a collapsible escape ladder hanging from the window as a protected secondary means of escape from the home. This convinced the visitors of the value of planning and practicing EDITH (exit drills in the home).

Students could see the drastic difference between a bedroom where the door was left open (above) and one where it was left closed.

(Photos by Walter M. Kurzeja)

Chronology of the Fire

0 minutes, 0 seconds

0 minutes, 40 seconds

1 minute, 25 seconds

17 minutes, 0 seconds

21 minutes, 0 seconds

24 minutes, 0 seconds

Ignition of the fire

Downstairs smoke

detector alarm


Upstairs smoke

detector alarm


Suppression begins

Fire under control

Fire out, salvage


Project Open House lasted four days and attracted more than 850 visitors. After two days of classroom touring, the house was opened to the general public. Many of these visitors were parents of the middle school children; the students wanted to share their fire safety lesson.

At a meeting after the open house, school administration officials and principals from the three other middle schools in the district had a favorable impression of this program’s value as an educational device. Having participated successfully in the program once, school officials indicated they would continue their support for the effort. Further, it was determined that busing students to a site away from school grounds would not be impractical.

This type of presentation requires the commitment of many fire department employees. Personnel are needed for the fire and its suppression and for the subsequent tours of the burned-out structure.

For the Farmington Hills Fire Department, it involved taking a risk on a new idea. The results of this first-time effort greatly exceeded our expectations: The program received nothing but positive responses from all involved. With its threedimensional effect, we were not just preaching to the people, we were able to show them the fire. They could see, feel, touch, and smell its destruction.

Project Open House will lead to future programs involving the open house concept. We expect to develop other uses for fire training burns so the resources that are available can be maximized and the fire safety message can be delivered to the most people.

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