First Line: May 2018

Finding life safety advocates
April 19, 2018
Written by Samantha Hoffmann
There are three fundamental questions that affect all people: Is my home safe? Is my community safe? Am I safe?


My sister is a journalist and has been taught to consider these questions with every story she reports. In January 2014 she learned that it didn’t matter that her home was equipped with state of the art smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, or that she had an escape plan. Her neighbour’s home wasn’t equipped. A fire started in the neighbour’s home one night and quickly spread. It’s not enough to ensure your home is safe, you need to ensure that neighbouring homes are also protected and that you are safe from fire no matter where you are. Statistics show us that most fires occur in residential homes. Ironically, home is where people feel safest and yet it is where they are at the greatest risk. We have had smoke alarm legislation in Ontario since 1975, yet in more than 60 per cent of fatal fires smoke alarms were not present or working. This means fire departments’ safety messages are falling flat in our communities.

There are many different reasons our communities are not heeding our message. It could be cultural, language barriers, general access or that age old ‘it won’t happen to me’ belief. Regardless of the reason(s), departments need to start getting buy-in from our communities and we need help. We can’t be solely responsible for fire safety messaging; it needs to come for a variety of sources. Remember the expression two heads are better than one? Fire and life safety officers should use this principle to share our message, create relationships and build a community full of fire safety advocates.

Human beings are hard-wired with the desire and need to connect. We are social beings who thrive on healthy relationships. Officers recognize the importance of positive healthy relationships when we teach fire safety to children with the expectation that they will go home and teach their parents. However, we can’t overlook the childless homes in our communities. Begin to unleash the power of positive relationships in your community by recognizing these individuals and bringing fire safety messages to them.

If community members hear the message from someone they trust, they will be more likely to believe what they are being told. It is about incorporating safety messaging and behaviour changes into your relationships. When teaching through positive relationships, you recognize that each person is a living story with their own complex identity.

To start to build a community full of fire safety advocates departments first need to consider what you are asking citizens for. Why does the department want to reach people? What do you want them to do once messaging is received?

These are some of the first questions that most people will ask when contacted by public educators, and you should have the answers on the tip of your tongue. The answer to the first question should include some information about your fire service, your current initiative, why the effort is positive and necessary, what the department hopes to accomplish, and a description of the people you want to involve. The answer to the second question can vary from specific actions, to suggesting other good contacts and introducing you to other people and organizations.

Whatever the answers are, they should be clear, complete, and accurate. Think carefully about what you want people to do and then ask them to do just that. Develop talking points and key messages. This will help keep your message clear, focused and consistent. The goal is for your department’s fire and life safety advocates to be comfortable asking friends, family members, co-workers, and community members to participate in conversation. Prevention officers should be able to give a brief overview about the program, talk about what issue they’ll be addressing and why it’s important.

Ideally, the community should have fire safety advocates in the many different sectors and industries – the parts of the community defined by common interests, purposes, and/or backgrounds. This will ensure that the community members you are trying to educate will first be approached by people they know and trust.

Examples of these sectors could be the business sector, healthcare, education, government, or the religious sector, among others. Each sector has its members and those who are influenced by it.

As educators, we often struggle to reach diverse populations or groups in the community that are hard to contact. Populations that are hesitant to interact with anyone who seems to be “official” or in a position of authority are often difficult to reach out to, even if contact is beneficial. Using fire safety advocates that already have an established rapport with these communities may be the best way to gain their trust and begin to work with them.

How do you identify whom your fire safety advocates should be? Read your local newspaper. You should be able to identify one or two advocates in each issue. Who is making a difference in your community? Who is already reaching out and how are they doing it? How can you incorporate fire safety into what these individuals are already doing?

Let’s look at an example of putting all of this into play. We know that most fires happen in the home and we know that is where people feel safest. Who would be an ideal advocate for home fire safety? When driving through the community or looking through the newspaper we see lots of advertisements and signage for local realtors.

Hmmm, realtors are in homes all the time. They develop relationships with numerous members of the community across social groups, including those hard-to-reach groups. The Canadian Real Estate Association projects that 486,000 homes will be sold across Canada in 2018. With a partnership, that is a potential of 486,000 homes with working, in-date smoke and carbon monoxide alarms.

Fortunately, we have a celebrity realtor in my community, David Visentin from the HGTV show Love it or List it.  I reached out to him, explained the problem we were having and told him how he could help us save lives. He agreed to be our celebrity realtor and together we started the #RealEstateSmokeAlarmChallenge. Involving him allowed me to overcome barriers such as fearing change and addressing social norms that conflict with the desired behaviour, then model the desired behaviour. It also allowed me to challenge local realtors and turn them into fire safety advocates. My local realtors have started to include fire safety materials in their listings, make videos and great graphics for social media activities promoting the campaign, and most importantly, have engaged their clients in conversations about the importance of working smoke alarms and escape planning.

One local realtor, Jo Love of the Remax Hallmark York Group, makes a point of checking the dates and testing smoke alarms in every home she visits with clients. As a result, her clients are learning the importance of doing this in every home they visit. If the home has outdated or missing alarms, the realtor leaves a note or tells the homeowner that they need to take action immediately. The realtor has even taken it upon herself to purchase new smoke and carbon monoxide alarms for every home she lists and is giving alarms as gifts to clients that have purchased their home through her.  

This is just one example of a fire safety advocate in the real estate field. Imagine if your department was to get a personal support worker, or a general contractor, a teacher, a local reporter, a mother, or a coach on board.

Fire safety is no longer just a lecture from the fire department, it’s a conversation happening throughout your community.


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. In 2014 Samantha was named Public Fire and Life Safety Educator of the Year by the National Fire Protection Association – the second Canadian and first Ontario educator to receive the award since its inception. Email Samantha at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow her on Twitter @shoffmannpflso.

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