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Public Ed May 2017: Use storytelling to promote your safety message

"An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story,” author Stephen King said. “It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

April 19, 2017 
By Samantha Hoffmann

Think about these famous opening lines: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” “It was a dark and stormy night,” “I had a farm in Africa.” Did they make you want to know more? When it comes to educating our communities about fire safety, we need to grab people’s attention. We can do that through good storytelling.

The Elements of Journalism describes journalism as “storytelling with a purpose.” When it comes to public education we know our purpose is to raise awareness about fire prevention and fire safety, and to change unsafe behaviours. The local media serves a similar public-education role. Fire departments should build relationships with reporters to achieve this purpose together.

Every time a truck responds to an emergency call, there is a story that can be told and a lesson that can be learned. Last year, our crews were called to a structure fire at which a babysitter and a five-year-old were trapped. Firefighters rescued two people from a second-floor window. The news story could have been written in a traditional way: “Firefighters save two from burning building.” Instead, we worked with the reporter and explained how the fire happened. We gave details: the babysitter made herself a midnight snack of French fries, which led to a grease fire. We explained how the sitter and the child became trapped and why they survived. After reading the story, readers know what they should and shouldn’t do in a fire emergency:

  • Never remove the battery from a smoke alarm.
  • If you can’t escape from a fire, protect yourself from smoke by closing as many doors as possible between you and the fire.
  • Call 911 and tell the dispatchers exactly where you are trapped in the home.

Telling stories can be tricky because community members are all different; they have diverse beliefs, characteristics, concerns and interests. So we must tell diverse stories that provide a variety of experiences to which people in all walks of life can relate. We must seek out different perspectives if we want our entire community to learn about fire safety.


Stories about emergency calls could give fire departments an opportunity to learn from others’ triumphs and mistakes. An interview after an incident can be used to help readers or viewers think about their own behaviour.

Now that you know what makes a good story, you must build a relationship with your local media. Having a list of media contacts will make your storytelling much easier. In addition to contact info, ask about deadlines and story formats.

In every media course I have taken, we reviewed how to write press releases. However, reporters often say they don’t have time to read releases, that a phone call or email is a better way to get their attention. So pick up the phone and pitch your story!

Twice a year at daylight savings time, fire departments across North America promote smoke-alarm maintenance. Every year, there are successful Change the Clock, Change the Battery or Change the Hour, Check the Power campaigns. Many media outlets run free public-service announcements promoting these campaigns, but is this the best way to get the message out? No. The best way to engage your community and get citizens to act is to tell them a story.

First, find your story subject – perhaps a family with a new baby or a young man with a puppy, or maybe even first time grandparents. Ask your subjects why smoke alarms are important: they may have had to change their home escape plan when the baby was born, the puppy arrived or when the grandchildren came to visit. Share your subject’s experience. Contact reporters, tell them the story, and provide statistics that prove working smoking alarms are important. Do the groundwork and work within reporters’ deadlines. Hand reporters a total package –topic, visuals and location. You can be part of the story, the authority that ties it all together. The combination of story and the statistics activates the reader’s emotions and changes behaviour.

After all, who can resist a cute baby or new puppy?

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 and follow her on Twitter @shoffmannpflso

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