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First Line: May 2019


April 11, 2019
By Samantha Hoffmann

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As I sit in front on my computer to write this month’s article, I hesitate because, as a public educator, this past week has been particularly difficult for me.  

My week started with the news that seven children, ranging in age from four months to 14 years old, had died in a house fire in Halifax, N.S. As a member of the fire service, any fire death is heartbreaking, but seven children is beyond description.  

I had to stop the intense Internet search for a cause, the frantic hope to find a justification – an explanation that would make processing the news easier – because my next appointment, a young, adorable little boy with autism, had arrived at the station for his TAPP-C (The Arson Prevention Program for Children) graduation.

This was my fifth appointment with this seven-year-old, more than the program requires because of his acute learning disabilities. He came to me as a referral from his school principal who had been approached by his distraught mother. He was often burning things in the home, playing with candles, the lighter and the stove.

His family life is traumatic; in addition to his autism diagnosis, he has also been diagnosed with selective mutism. Fire-safety education is important for everyone; for others it is crucial.  

We know that there are three very different reasons people don’t practice fire safety. They are often referred to as the three Us – Unknown, Unwilling and Unable.

Unknown: These are the people that don’t know what the dangers and risks are.

Unwilling: These are the people that know the fire-safety rules and fire code regulations, but don’t think a fire is going to happen to them and don’t follow the rules.

Unable: They are the vulnerable, the people in need of special care, support or protection because of age, disability or risk of abuse or neglect.

As a fire service, we are great at helping the unable with smoke-alarm installations, but that isn’t enough. We need to ensure that they are educated and have the skills to not only prevent a fire, but after our best efforts, to survive one should it still occur. This takes time.

We know that there are many reasons why people might be unable. The young and very old are more obvious. They are less able, physically or mentally, to take care of themselves and may rely on others for assistance. We know that with access to, and without proper supervision, young children may play with matches or lighters.

People with disabilities are often unable to respond to a fire situation in a timely manner and must rely on others for assistance. They are also often at the lower end of the socio-economic scale and so experience many of the risks of being poor.

Two other groups that may be unable are immigrants and refugees. Language barriers, cultural difference and inexperience with home construction and safety equipment are challenges that can prevent newcomers from living safely in your community.

When working with any of these groups we need to spend time learning about their background. Leave your judgements at the door and find out about the living conditions, traditions and practices.

Know that the people you are trying to help may be reluctant to ask for assistance. Once you have their trust, start small and teach them the most important fire-safety information for their specific situation.

I knew that I was not going to be able to control the behaviour of the adults in my junior firesetter’s life, so I focused on his behaviour and educated him on the things he could control. We spent a lot of time on identifying hot things that could burn him, as well as how to escape a fire in his home.  

Thanks to the partnership with the school, an amazing principal and phenomenal educational assistant, all of the siblings in the home are also getting vital fire-safety information and the tools they need to be safe at home, as are the other students in the school.

Partnerships take time. Teaching the most vulnerable people in our communities also takes time. Be patient, practical and persistent. Relationship-building and trust takes time. It is time well spent.


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 Samantha.hoffmann@barrie.ca and follow her on Twitter @shoffmannpflso.


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