Returning to the Foundations

Fire Prevention and Public Education

CarolinaFireJournal - By Mike Coffey
By Mike Coffey
01/10/2015 -

(This is part two of a two part series.)

One of the most important themes we tend to carry year-round is fire prevention. Traditionally thought of during Fire Prevention Week, fire departments all over the country seek to educate youngsters. “Stop, Drop and Roll” mated with “Exit Drills in the Home” and working smoke detectors not only save young lives, but also can have a serious impact on all ages.

The first thing in fire prevention is the correction of any unsafe conditions. We teach the youngsters how to spot problems — matches, lighters and their use — but do we direct this information to the adults in the crowd? I’m sure some do. What about the older folks in our community? Older adults become set in their ways of doing things — as we all do at some time — and some review or reemphasis of this point may save their lives. Review of heat sources — now that we are in the depth of winter — and their use to the adults and kids provides reinforcement of a seasonal (four to six month) fire safety message.

Housekeeping is another source of problems — especially with the recent awareness campaigns of the TV networks highlighting hoarding — that plagues both young and old alike. Emphasize if they can’t get out — we may not be able to get to them for a chance of saving that life. Maintaining the exits is just as important in a residential atmosphere as it is in a commercial or industrial one.

With the holiday season just past, review of home and Christmas tree decoration is vital to electrical heat overloads from extension cords or short circuits. Decorating properly for the holidays saves lives at a time when family is precious. We also have Memorial Day coming up and the July 4th festivities following that, which means hand-held sparklers and fireworks, offering up another round of specialized fire prevention efforts. Thanksgiving is in there too, so cooking safety — inside with traditional baking and cooking or outside with deep-frying — should be highlighted.

Reminding the pre-teens and adults about cooking safety is good for any time of the year. Be accurate in providing your messages to the public. They see you as the expert in fire and life safety – treat it as such. Be positive and have positive attitudes. The public will notice attitude and accept the message more readily when portrayed positively. Scare tactics usually won’t work with adults, but don’t downplay the results of bad decisions either. “Just the facts.”

If your department offers fire prevention visits to residential homes or apartments — do it to remind the residents that we are there to prevent fire from occurring in their homes and is not related to a code enforcement visit they are accustomed to at work. Those visits may save lives in the long run, especially when over 70 percent of fires occur in the home.1 General checklists keep the visit running smoothly and waste little time for firefighters and the residents as well. Emphasize improving life safety conditions and check the smoke detectors. Some agencies provide them at no charge for homeowners that can’t afford them, or for renters in the same circumstances. Placement of the smoke detectors on each level (at minimum) or at sleeping areas (again at minimum) is at a premium for early warning of fire. Providing the extra warning to get out of a fire is as valuable as the prevention of the fire itself.

Place added emphasis on staying out of the fire building as several news reports define those going back into burning homes usually don’t come back out. Firefighters should remind residents that the chances of survival in a fire increase 50 percent if a smoke detector is installed and functioning.2 Practicing “Exit Drills in the Home” at multiple times during the year is a fine time to emphasize get out and stay out of a burning structure. Keeping doors closed to bedrooms while sleeping buys needed time to get everyone out. For homes with multiple stories — recommend alternatives to exit the upper floors without having to travel the normal pathways in case fire takes those routes away. All this “trouble” we go through actually allows the citizens we serve to see we care about their lives and safety. It builds trust between both parties and is very good public relations. Follow the guidelines for dress from last issue’s article and be professional toward those same people that allow you to protect them.

Carbon monoxide alarms have become a notable alarm, especially in the fall of the year. They are designed to warn occupants that carbon monoxide is escaping which could place them unconscious after a period of time. Because it is odorless, colorless and tasteless — an air monitor for this is helpful in keeping occupants safe.

One of the most popular questions asked is about portable extinguishers. We know what we carry on our apparatus and how we are trained. Money is a driving factor, so residents may not be able to afford the metal-headed fire extinguishers we use regularly. Extinguishers sold at retail establishments are usually plastic heads or a plastic/metal combination and reasonably priced and are one-time use by our standards and those that service them. Ask what they are trying to protect and recommend accordingly. A 20 pound ABC dry chemical extinguisher may be overkill in the kitchen, but not in an all-purpose workshop. Also using extinguishers is a great time to teach some fire safety lessons along with use of the extinguisher. Have a few smaller extinguishers around for occupants to get a feel for using the unit. A little time spent teaching saves bigger problems later.

All age groups benefit from “Stop, Drop and Roll” to limit burn and other injuries. Yes, the kids get the most fun out of it, but adults need to know how to save themselves from further injury, especially older people within the community. Allow a child or two to go through the steps, remembering to cover their faces for protection and tucking in elbows and knees for the rolling section. Stress to adults simple prevention techniques and coaching someone else through the steps when clothing catches fire.

These quick glimpses into public education topics simply remind us that our top priority of life safety is supposed to be just that — top priority. As an old friend politely reminded me when I began in this business, “We are the only business in the world designed to put itself out of business.” Simply succumbing to the fire should not be acceptable. A life saved is just that — a life saved and not a statistic.


1 Essentials of Firefighting 5th Edition, Chapter 20; IFSTA/ Fire Protection Publications; Tulsa, OK; 2008

2 Firefighter’s Handbook: Firefighting and Emergency Response, Chapter 21; 2008; Delmar, Cengage Learning; Clifton Park, NY

Captain Coffey currently serves as one of the training officers of the High Point Fire Department. He has been an instructor with the NC Community College system and the Office of the State Fire Marshal since 1990. He can be reached at [email protected].
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