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Effective Fire Education: A sampling of programs that work

If prevention is the best defence against fire, then effective fire education is an absolute must. But how do fire departments teach people to protect themselves and to respond properly when fire does occur? Here are some tactics used by departments across Canada.

December 6, 2007
By James Careless

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effective_10896If prevention is the best defence against fire, then effective fire education is an absolute must. But how do fire departments teach people to protect themselves and to respond properly when fire does occur? Here are some tactics used by departments across Canada.

Safety houses
Fairs and home shows are great venues for educating the public. In Vancouver, for instance, "we see about 60,000 at the home and garden show, which takes place twice a year," says the VFD's Capt. Robert Jones-Cook. "Add another 55,000 at the annual children's festival, and we're talking about 185,000 people."

Typically, fire departments set up booths with videos, pamphlets, and give-away plastic firemens' hats to woo families. However, some go the extra mile with "safety house" trailers. Designed to resemble a house inside, these fifth-wheel trailers allow children to experience making their way through a smoke-filled building so they can learn first-hand from the pros how to cope. These houses also offer departments a rolling classroom in which to teach kitchen safety, home escape plans and smoke alarm use.

In Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., Waterloo Fire Rescue built its Smoke House (as the trailer is called) inside a conventional camping trailer. The Smoke House is often found at local events and schools. To encourage use, WFR offers a website that lists the Smoke House's upcoming appearances(www.wplwloo.lib.ia.us/wfr/smokehouse.html) and lets people arrange bookings through this site.

The Port Alberni Fire Department in British Columbia went one step further, building a realistic house on a trailer complete with a second storey, staircase and balcony. Created with the help of staff and students at Alberni District Secondary School, the Children's Fire Safety House is probably one of the most realistic simulators on the road today. The city's website, www.city.port-alberni.bc.ca/fire/SafetyHouse/safetyhs.htm, says, "We plan to keep our fire safety house up to date with the most current trends in fire prevention and public education. As funding and time permits, we plan to expand the program to include life-safety concepts as well. [For instance] we will promote electrical safety, safety around natural gas and key life safety behaviours."

Full-scale simulation
Even with all the features that safety houses offer, they can only provide so much realism. This is why the City of Cambridge, Ont., has opened a $520,000 Fire Education Centre at its Children's Safety Village teaching facility. Equipped with a fully decorated household – Sparky's Apartment – with a balcony and a hallway that can mimic either a single-family or high-rise corridor, the centre is state-of-the-art in terms of realistic fire education. The students – children in Grades 2, 4 and 6 – even get to climb out a window and climb down a ladder to a basement room.

"We teach a whole range of fire survival techniques using simulated smoke, running kids through fire escape plans," says Becky Moore, public education co-ordinator for the safety village. " They even get to make mock 9-1-1 calls, so that they know what to expect should they ever have to call for help in real life. We also assign them homework, where they identify how many smoke alarms they have at home and on what floors. They have to bring this work back to school, which helps us identify vulnerable households before fire occurs.

"Nothing beats hands-on training," Moore notes. "Besides, having the kids learn so much about fire prevention can do a lot to motivate their parents to act, especially when it comes to installing smoke alarms."

Hitting the streets
Ottawa Fire Services has a simple yet effective way to teach the public about fire safety: firefighters go door to door, talking to people and checking their smoke alarms. In instances where smoke alarms are absent, the OFS installs them at no charge. The money for these alarms comes from corporate and government donations.

"We had a horrendous fire a few years ago in Ottawa, where five out of eight family members died in a fire," says OFS Deputy Fire Chief Bruce Montone. "During the investigation, it was discovered that their apartment was not equipped with smoke detectors, despite the fact that landlords and home owners are required to have them by law. So we decided to do something about this, by having our officers get out on the street and start checking houses personally." He estimates that Ottawa has about 340,000 dwellings. To date, OFS members have gone to about 10 per cent of them.

"We schedule the walkarounds for a few hours in the evening between 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.," Montone explains. "Our people cover areas close to their station house, so that they can respond to incoming alarms without delay. All they do is knock on people's doors and ask to check the occupants' smoke alarms. In most cases, people let us in. In those few where they don't, we have a follow up done to see if the house is properly equipped with smoke alarms or not."
In neighbourhoods where English and French are not the residents' first languages, the OFS teams with local community members who act as translators. "For many immigrants, seeing someone in uniform outside only motivates them not to open the door," says Montone. "But if they see someone they know from their local community, they are far more likely to let us in."

In houses that lack smoke alarms, the OFS team will install one outside the major sleeping area and then give the occupants discount coupons sufficient to put one on each floor. "We've considered the danger of liability, which we risk by installing these alarms ourselves," Montone said. "We checked the law, and discovered that none of these cases have succeeded over the last 30 years.

Given that, and our desire to protect the public, we've decided to continue installing smoke alarms ourselves."

Other ideas
Mobile safety houses, fixed training facilities for children and sending firefighters into the community are three effective ways to educate the public about fire safety. There are many others. For instance, the Canadian Firefighters Museum in Port Hope, Ont., www.firemuseumcanada.com, uses historical equipment, horse-drawn and motorized pumpers and other vintage materials to get kids and their families excited about fire safety.

"In our education program, children get the chance to dress up in firefighters' coats and helmets," says Isabel Fraser, the museum's administrator. "There's nothing like getting hands-on experience with something to etch it into your memory."

That's not all. For $30, the Vancouver Fire Department will let adults learn how to use fire extinguishers – by actually using them. "We light a propane burner to create a three-foot tall flame and then have the students put it out," says Jones-Cook. "It makes a real difference to people, getting real life experience with this equipment."

The bottom line: There are lots of creative ways to make fire education informative and fun. See what you can come up with. Chances are your inspirations will help save lives in your community.


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