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Innovative Public Education: How one B.C. department built a program from scratch

Fire safety education in our community - where do we begin? This was the question the Sooke Volunteer Fire Department wrestled with about seven years ago. Like most fire departments, our 40 volunteers were kept busy keeping up with training and attending calls.

December 6, 2007
By Steve Sorensen and Nikki Lewers

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innovative_10897Fire safety education in our community – where do we begin? This was the question the Sooke Volunteer Fire Department wrestled with about seven years ago. Like most fire departments, our 40 volunteers were kept busy keeping up with training and attending calls. Combine this with only two full-time employees, and public-education activities often fell to the bottom of the priority list. There were sporadic station tours, quick presentations to a service group or the occasional fire extinguisher demonstration but we wanted to do more. The question was how to bring our message to the community with so few personnel available to deliver?

Our first plan was to go into the community and solicit new members to form a public education division. Being a very protective bunch, the majority of the volunteer firefighters were not comfortable bringing "strangers" into their fire stations. With this in mind, and realizing that the support of the firefighters was essential to the success of this program, we decided to look in-house. We put out a call to our firefighters' spouses to see how many might be interested in forming a public education division. The initial support was overwhelming, and, after meeting with the applicants and discussing what we wanted to do, we had seven participants ready and willing to dedicate their time to the project.

Over the next six months, the department training officer trained the new members to the NFPA Fire and Life Safety Educator standard. The fire chief managed to add $1,000 to the annual budget for public education and this became our seed money. By using the local newspaper, visiting area schools, service and community groups and by talking to business owners while out conducting fire inspections, word soon got out that this committee was active and eager to share its message with the community. Requests for presentations on a variety of fire- and life-safety related topics started to come in to the fire station.

The next step was to acquire props to help us deliver the fire-safety message. Our first goal was to build a fire-safety house. Fortunately, just as we were about to get started, we heard about a used unit for sale by another fire department. After a quick meeting with our neighbouring mutual-aid departments (the children of the three surrounding rural mutual aid departments all attend schools in the District of Sooke), each agreed to provide $1,250 towards the total $5,000 price of the fire-safety house. A local towing company donated its time and truck to get the house and deliver it to Sooke. A quick cleaning and a few minor repairs and it was ready for service.

For our inaugural project, we decided to visit the four local elementary schools and spend a couple of hours with all Grade 3 students in the community. They received instruction on how to "Stop, Drop and Roll", on kitchen and hot water safety, on making a home-escape plan and on getting out quickly and safely. The program was such a hit we have continued to visit the schools each year and have delivered this program to more than 1,200 students since its inception.

Over the years we have been fortunate enough to add more props to our collection. Community support and fundraising drives have allowed us to obtain the following visual aids to complement our activities:

  • A full size Sparky the Fire Dog costume;
  • A mockup of a burning house (children can spray water on the flames);
  • Child-sized turnout gear;
  • An eight-foot-long fire truck display rack for brochures and pamphlets;
  • A small trailer to hold the props including a pop-up tent and lawn chairs for our comfort;
  • A complete video reference library on many fire- and life-safety topics;
  • Twenty portable fire extinguishers for training purposes.

Our programming has also expanded and we now deliver programs to many groups regularly. These include:

  • Visits to all elementary schools during Fire Prevention Week, during which we put on a skit related to fire safety;
  • Fire-extinguisher training for local businesses, community groups and high school cooking and shop classes;
  • Mall displays on seasonal fire safety programs;
  • Fire safety for seniors;
  • Fire safety for daycare providers;
  • Fire safety for community groups such as Cubs, Brownies and Girl Guides;
  • Fire safety programs for commercial kitchen owners and operators;
  • Juvenile fire-setter intervention programs;
  • Address visibility and awareness promotions;
  • Child restraint system installations;
  • Assist the volunteer firefighters at their activities.

We are now looking at expanding further. Partnering with the local community school, we will be offering three evening classes at the local secondary school. These include: Fire Safety in the Workplace; Commercial Kitchen Fire Safety; and Fire Safety at Home. We will also be offering fire-extinguisher training through a program at the local recreation complex that will be open to all residents.

In 2004, the Sooke Fire Department public education division was one of a group of four fire departments that shared the Volunteer Firefighters' Association Public Educator of the Year award for their combined work at an annual joint Fire Safety Expo held each fall. In 2005, the Sooke Fire Department was recognized again with this award for all of its work in the community in preventing fires before they happen.

Over the past seven years, some members have moved on and new ones have taken their place. We have never had fewer than four active members and at times we have had up to seven members. This seems to be an adequate number for the projects we take on. New members receive certified training through the Justice Institute of B.C. After a little reluctance, the support from the firefighters has been great, with public education members now enjoying the same benefits and privileges as the firefighters. Each member receives a full department uniform and attends the monthly firefighter association meeting. Each member has also completed the first responder program and is certified in this medical training, with two of them taking on first responder duty shifts.

Our budget has increased slightly over time and is now about $1,500 a year. We receive an additional $250 a year from each of our three mutual-aid departments to assist in purchasing handouts and give-away items for the children we work with. As the community continues to grow and we expand our programs, we hope to appoint a full- or at least half-time position to facilitate public safety education. While statistics on the effectiveness of our programs are difficult to provide, the response we receive from teachers, parents and the general public leads us to believe our programs are making a real difference in the community. The population in the District of Sooke has grown by about 25 per cent in the past seven years but our fire statistics are remaining constant, showing no marked increase in the number of accidental fires. In fact, the number of confirmed structure fires has decreased during this time.

Our public educators are a very visible component of the Sooke Fire Department, and often act as our ambassadors. While the firefighters are well respected and attend many emergencies in the district, only a small portion of the community interacts with them. The public education members are the ones out on the street, talking and teaching the residents on a day-to-day basis. That community interaction helps form the continuing basis for our success, reaching all segments of the community, young or old.

The Sooke Fire Department is on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. Operating from two fire stations, the 40 volunteer firefighters and three career staff respond to about 700 calls a year. The Public Education Division currently has five active members.

Steven Sorensen is deputy chief of the Sooke Fire Department. Nikki Lewers is the co-ordinator of the Sooke Fire Department public education division. For more information on Sooke's public education program, contact Sorensen at ssorensen@sooke.ca .


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