I’m sure you’ve all experienced seeing a child terrified of a firefighter in full turnouts and SCBA at a fire safety presentation. The program is going along smoothly and then suddenly the child panics and starts screaming or crying. Sometimes, it isn’t sudden. You notice a little apprehension that builds throughout the presentation. You can minimize or eliminate such fears by connecting with the children and building a trusting relationship.


One approach to solving this fear is to begin your presentation in your street clothes or uniform. I recommend regular clothes for volunteers. Wear the same type of clothing the kids wear (blue jeans, T-shirt, sneakers, and the like); they’ll see you as a “regular” person like their teachers or parents. As you go through the presentation, let the children know that when you arrive at the fire station for a call you are wearing the same type of clothes they wear—blue jeans, T-shirt, sneakers.

Ask how many of them think being a firefighter is dangerous. It would help if you show them a beaten-up helmet or some other worn piece of equipment. Explain the different types of damage—burns, cracks, melted decals, and black soot. Let them examine the equipment damage up close.

Then ask if they think you should wear the clothes you have on now to a fire. You might say something like, “Being a firefighter is very dangerous. If the firefighter gets hurt, he can’t put out the fire. So we have a bunch of fancy gear to help keep us safe.”

Now it’s time to get suited up. Explain everything as you go: “Just as you have to dress quickly when you hear the alarm clock go off in the morning, firefighters have to get dressed quickly when the fire alarm goes off.”

Now that the pants are on, move on to the other gear. A technique I’ve used successfully involving the NomexT hood is to refer to it as “the stinky puppet.” I use it as a hand puppet for a few seconds. This helps keep the kids loose and often gets a pretty good chuckle.

While explaining why you put on the hood and then the coat, you might try something like the following:

“Have you ever seen mom put a chicken in the oven for dinner? Did you notice that it’s all nice and crispy brown when she takes it out? That crispy, brown looks good on a chicken, but it would look bad on a firefighter! The firefighter is going to a place hotter than the oven. If he has any bare skin showing, it will burn and look like the cooked chicken. So I put the hood inside the coat to cover all the bare skin around my neck.”

At this point, you might ask if they think you’re ready to go into the fire yet. Keep them involved by letting them point out what’s missing—gloves, helmet, what else? The SCBA; sometimes they get this, and sometimes they don’t.

Explain the SCBA on their level:

“It goes on just like the backpack you wore to school today. In the back is a tank or a bottle filled with regular air just like we are breathing right now. A special machine takes the air and pushes a whole bunch of it through here (point to the valve) into the bottle. There’s enough air in here so that you could sit on your couch and breath from the tank and watch two episodes of Sponge Bob on the TV.

“When you brush your teeth or get a drink of water, you know how you turn on the faucet and the water comes out? This bottle has a faucet handle, too. We turn it on, and the air comes out, just like the water in your faucet. Let’s see if we can hear it come out. It comes out of the bottle, through this rubber hose, and into this plastic thing (point to the regulator). All this part does is slow down the air so the firefighter can take the air from the tank one breath at a time.”

Put on the pack. “Let’s listen to the air and see if we can feel it coming out.”

Crack the purge valve a little; let them feel and hear the air.

“I can’t hold this up to my face with my hand, so I need another part to make this work. I need a facepiece. (Show it.) “This is made out of plastic, rubber, and cloth, just like the toys you have at home. (Mentioning some specific toys they probably have, such as G.I. Joe, Barbie, and Hot-Wheels can help them connect with you.) So, if this is made out of the same stuff as your toys, can it hurt you?”

(Let them feel it and look through it.) “I’m going to put on the rest of my things now. The hood—remember the ‘stinky puppet’? I pull that up to cover all my bare skin. My helmet, gloves. Anything else? I need to put this part onto the mask so I can get the air from the tank. Let’s listen to the sound it makes when I breathe from the tank. The air comes out of the tank, through this hose, and into the face mask; I breathe it in through my nose and out through my nose. When I’m coming through the house, I’ll be on my hands and knees like this” (crawl around, and let them touch, see, and hear you).

Remind them that you’re still the same as you were before when you stood before them with the blue jeans and T-shirt showing and that now, with the items you put on over these clothes, you are protected as you go to put out the fire.

Despite this approach, a child may still be scared. It may help if the teacher is willing to put on all the gear or if you spend time with the teacher and student while your partner shows the other students the apparatus. It may also help if you scheduled another trip to the classroom so the children can become more familiar with the equipment and firefighters.

You might be thinking that this is basic information. You’re right. But, we sometimes have to be reminded that approaching youngsters as “warriors” can be too intense or overly technical for some. Such fears can be overcome with patience, practice, and persistence.

MIKE SAUNDERS has been a firefighter with the Bath (NY) Volunteer Fire Department for nine years and has been active in fire safety education. He is a nationally certified fire service instructor.

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