Pros and Cons of Props

MY NAME IS DAYNA, AND I am a propoholic. How did I become a propoholic? After viewing several fire safety presentations, I thought there had to be a creative way to reinforce the message, so I began to explore the use of props.

Our fire department’s fire safety program has grown every year, thanks to our department’s hardworking firefighters, Fire Corps members (comprised of 100 University of the Ozarks Phi Beta Lambda members representing 23 countries), and funding from grants. As our program has grown, so has our collection of props.

Props can be a blessing or a curse. A sound educational message is your most important asset. Don’t use props just to use them, or they could become the central focus of the presentation. Remember, great props do not make a poor presentation better. You are your own best visual aid. Nothing is more important than the speaker, the voice, and the message.


Props can create a memorable moment and a longer lasting impression for your audience. According to a U.S. Bureau of Labor study, we learn and retain 11 percent of what we hear and 83 percent of what we see and hear.

Appropriate and colorful props can be worth a thousand words and engage and energize your audience. This is especially important since people generally have an attention span of five to seven minutes.

Illustrate and reinforce points. Bring out your props only after sharing the initial fire safety message. In a presentation on the “Stop, Drop, and Roll” technique, for example, our fire safety team shares the fire safety message, then a team member demonstrates the appropriate behavior, and a concluding song reinforces the correct behavior (photo 1).

Photos 1, 3, and 4 courtesy of Johnson County Rural Fire District No. 1. Photo 2 by Bruce Boyajian, courtesy of PBS KIDS Sprout.
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Props can transform a good presentation into an excellent, memorable event for participants, but the safety messages must be balanced with the props used, which should not overwhelm your message. You audience should primarily remember your safety message, not just the props. Also, your audience might view improperly used props as just gimmicks. They should easily understand why a prop is being used.

If a presentation involves audience participation using a prop, practice with the participant and the prop before the presentation.

Enhance the message; don’t compete with it. Hide your most attention-grabbing props from your audience until you need them. Otherwise, your audience may not pay attention to your message and most likely will focus on the prop. For example, if we brought out our dogs Sparkles and Spanner, our department mascots, at the beginning of our presentation, imagine how distracted the children would be. The message could easily get lost.

Sparkles and Spanner are two of our most effective props. They have been helping with our fire safety programming for about three and a half or four years. Both were adopted from the Tulsa Dalmatian Assistance League and came from very unfortunate backgrounds. Sparkles was found in a house with 62 other dogs, and Spanner was found on the side of a road and was within just 12 hours of being put to sleep. They are happiest when they are with children, and they love helping us teach fire safety.

Use dogs only to reinforce your fire safety message, not as a standalone program. With our “Get Low and Go” safety message, as with other messages, a firefighter or Fire Corps member demonstrates the appropriate behavior, then the dog demonstrates the behavior, then the message is reinforced orally (photo 2). For more information on using dogs in a presentation, see “Reading with Sparkles” below.

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Use appropriate props for the audience. Props should be age-appropriate for your audience. For example, it’s best not to use puppets at a fire safety program presented to the local Rotarians. Showing preschool children a melted smoke alarm while trying to explain what happened to the alarm is not the best idea, either. Your prop should be large enough to be seen by all if you have a large audience.

Children love the element of surprise. In the “Tools and Toy” section of our presentation, we bring the items out one at a time and ask the children if the item is a tool or a toy. Then, we reinforce the message with each prop after it is pulled out of the bag (photo 3).

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Give away props to reward people for behaviors you want to encourage or as a thank you for participating in your fire safety presentation.

Be prepared and practice. Be prepared for things to go wrong. It happens. Have a backup plan should the unfortunate happen, and be willing to laugh at yourself so that your audience will not feel uncomfortable.

Practice makes perfect. Our firefighters and Fire Corps members practice year-round. Practice as much as possible delivering your presentation using your props. Your safety team should be familiar with their props before giving the presentation.


Keep in mind that props must be transported. Fire Corps members can be a great help with transporting your props. Before we started our Fire Corps program, it would take our firefighters about an hour and a half to load and unload and set up and tear down our props. Now we can do it in about 20 minutes or less with the help of our Fire Corps members.

Let’s talk about storage. Your collection props may be taking over your department’s space. You need not continually add to your collection.

Make sure that you have a way to transport your props, using a large truck or trailer. It usually takes us several truckloads and trips back and forth from the station to an event, which is time consuming for personnel. Remember that the bigger the props are, the more difficult they are to pack and transport. A trash can on wheels with handles is an ideal way to transport smaller props.

Look for props that are easy to handle and sturdy. If your props are fragile, take special care that your safety team and audiences do not break or damage them. Should one of your props become damaged, be prepared to conduct your presentation without it.

Test your props in advance. Nothing is more embarrassing than to have a smoke alarm with a dead battery and teachers scurrying to find a new one. Keep extra batteries on hand at all times.

Don’t have any money for props? Even before receiving grant funding, we came up with innovative, low-cost props, many of which we still use today. For example, we use a sheet for the “Get low and go” part of the presentation. When we have time and space, we lay it over a “tunnel” of PVC pipe. Creating props out of styrofoam can also be very inexpensive. Paint your own props, or ask a local artist to assist.

You may want to apply for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Fire Prevention and Safety Grant for prop funding. Sponsors may also help to cover costs, especially if the sponsor’s name is on the prop. One of our sponsors, First Alert, manufactured some smoke-alarm props for us that we use extensively in fire safety presentations and parades.

Locate and cultivate relationships with fire safety sponsors. The more successful your program is, the more sponsors will want to support your efforts. Success breeds success.


Antion, T. How to be a Great Speaker Without Using Powerpoint. Retrieved December 30, 2006, from

Hathaway CSP, P. (October 5, 2001). Using Props in Presentations. Retrieved December 30, 2006, from

Jeary, T. High Performance Resources-Volume 42 “Props and Demonstrations Add Spice.” Retrieved December 30, 2006, from

Lynch, L. Using Visual Aids and Props for Giving More Powerful Presentations. Retrieved December 30, 2006, from

Reading with Sparkles

In 2003, Johnson County Rural Fire District No. 1 in Clarksville, Arkansas, implemented the “Reading with Sparkles” program. The program is designed to reinforce fire safety messages and to encourage reading among elementary school children. Since the program’s inception, Sparkles and her friend Spanner have helped hundreds of children to “read” (photo 4).

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Firefighters and Fire Corps members from the department visit one kindergarten and first grade class at Clarksville Primary School. Sparkles participates in the program by being a “good listener” to the story being told. This critical display of attention helps not only reinforce the fire safety message but also allows the firefighter or Fire Corps member to evaluate what the children have retained since previous fire safety presentations. The educator then reviews those messages needing additional clarification or reinforcement.

After the story is read, children are allowed to pet Sparkles and receive a special fire safety sticker for good behavior. Teachers receive an activity sheet with a picture of Sparkles without spots, and the children are encouraged to read a book and put a spot on Sparkles for each book read. After reading five books, the children receive a special fire safety bookmark with Sparkles’ picture.

Tips for Using Dogs in Presentations

  • Make sure that your dog is comfortable around children before taking it out in public. Some dogs may not be suitable around this age group.
  • Enroll your dog in a basic obedience course. Practice with your dog often, not just before a presentation.
  • Be sure that your dog is up-to-date on all shots and that it has been bathed.
  • Make sure that you receive permission from the establishment to use animals before bringing your dog there.
  • Make sure that someone is with your dog at ALL times. Be prepared for anything to happen.
  • Do not subject your dog to very large groups at once. This can be very frightening to your four-legged friend.
  • Communicate to children the areas on the dog they should not pet, such as the ears or tail.
  • Ask teachers ahead of time if any children in their class are allergic to dogs, and be sure these children do not pet the animal.
  • Dogs can easily become tired or distracted. Have a backup plan in case your dog is not able to perform during your presentation.
  • Make sure that your dog’s biological needs are met before the presentation.
  • Keep dogs out of sight until it is time to demonstrate the behavior; otherwise, the dogs will distract from your fire safety message.

DAYNA HILTON, a member of the fire service since 2000, is the public fire and life safety educator for Johnson County Rural Fire District No. 1 in Clarksville, Arkansas. She is a deputy state fire marshal and serves on the Arkansas Fire Prevention Commission. She is a member of the Technical Committee of National Fire Protection Association 1035, Standard for Professional Qualifications for Public Fire and Life Safety Educator, and of the International Fire Service Training Association Validation Committee for the Public Fire and Life Safety Educator manual. Hilton is an International Fire Service Accreditation Congress-certified public fire and life safety educator II and firefighter II and an adjunct instructor with the Arkansas Fire Academy and a contract instructor for the National Fire Academy.

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