Editor’s Pick 2016: First Line
By Samantha Hoffmann
There are differences among public education, public information and public relations. But the differences are often blurred, so before we can understand public education, we need to look at the definitions of all three.
By Samantha Hoffmann
As soon as you put on a fire-department uniform, whether you are a volunteer or career firefighter, you represent the fire service as a whole. The general public has no idea about the different divisions (suppression, prevention, administration, training); they see a firefighter and they have expectations of that firefighter. Whether you are holding open a door for somebody or driving your personal vehicle to and from work while in uniform, you are representing the fire service; that is public relations.
Public information is disseminated when your department tells people about a specific topic; it could be through social media, a door-to-door campaign with brochures, a display rack of pamphlets in the front entrance of the hall, or a conversation at a community event. Basically, public information is the data or messages that are provided to your community about fire-safety topics.
Public education goes one step further; it takes the information, adds skill development and life experience to incorporate learning, and results in behavioural change. Traditionally, as fire services, we are really good at public relations and are held in high esteem by our communities. We do a good job with public information too; through provincial fire marshals’ offices and with the help of the NFPA we have access to quality material that is easy to read. However, fire services tend to struggle with public education because we have some old-fashioned beliefs and misconceptions – we don’t spend time learning key messages, and we don’t know how to educate.
As someone who has been fighting fires before they start for more than 25 years, it is offensive to me to hear that anyone can do public education and that no specialized training is required. In many departments, a firefighter on modified duty is tasked with public education. In other departments, when a tour or school visit is scheduled, it falls upon the junior firefighter who has no specialized public-education skills. We would never send an injured firefighter or a junior firefighter into a fully involved structure fire, yet we think nothing of standing newer department members in front of a group of people – adults and/or children – and telling him or her to talk; this is not fair to the firefighter being asked to give the presentation and it is definitely not fair to the audience.
In these situations, people see a firefighter in uniform and expect expert advice and information; they might have gone to see the big red truck, to meet their local firefighters and until this point, have witnessed only the television and/or movie version of fire fighting. We are doing a disservice if we do not take the opportunity to properly educate people and provide the life-saving information they need to prevent and survive a fire. Each and every time someone comes into a fire station, we are given a valuable opportunity to provide information and change behaviour.
Training divisions spend hours teaching recruits about auto extrication and how to tie knots, but very little time, if any, is spent on public education, general fire safety and how to teach an audience. Fire services need to make sure that all firefighters have the tools and skills to deliver a good public-education program.
There are some great resources available to help departments develop an effective fire-safety education program. To start, I believe every firefighter should be certified to NFPA 1035, Level I Fire and Life Safety Educator. It takes fewer than 20 hours to obtain this certification, which provides basic fire-prevention activities, the foundations of public fire- and life-safety education, current educational materials, the major causes of unintentional injury, characteristics of learning, evaluation of lesson plans, presentation methods, learning characteristics of high-risk groups in the community, effective use of audio-visual aids, dealing with the media, record keeping and provincial fire statistics.
Educating all firefighters to NFPA 1035 is an initiative that we are piloting at Barrie Fire & Emergency Service. Fire Chief Bill Boyes has agreed that all front-line staff should be certified to NFPA 1035, at a minimum. If public education truly is the first line of defence, doesn’t it make sense that fire departments commit to providing staff with the tools and skills they need to be successful?
Samantha Hoffmann has been in the fire safety field for more than 25 years; she is the public fire and life-safety officer for Barrie Fire & Emergency Service in Ontario. Email Samantha at Samantha.firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @shoffmannpflso