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NFPA Impact: September 2009

After attending several provincial association meetings this summer I am still surprised by the number of smaller volunteer departments that underestimate the benefits of having school-based public education campaigns in their communities.

September 14, 2009 
By Sean Tracey

After attending several provincial association meetings this summer I am still surprised by the number of smaller volunteer departments that underestimate the benefits of having school-based public education campaigns in their communities. These programs are great tools for saving lives. Unfortunately, the rate at which fires burn in today’s contents-rich structures makes it unlikely firefighters can save lives through interior search-and-rescue operations. If occupants are not at the curb by the time the fire department arrives then there is little chance that survivors will be found.

This decrease in tenability times has been proven through studies, most recently the National Research Council of Canada’s December report on fire performance of Canadian houses ( The report shows that it takes fewer than five minutes for a structure fire to reach untenable conditions. Therefore, no fire department in Canada can get to a call quickly enough to be effective if the occupants are still inside. If the occupants have not been alerted and left the building then there is little opportunity for the fire service to rescue them. If we had complete national statistics we would see a trend showing that fires are increasingly more fatal and that those at greatest risk are the less mobile – seniors and infants. Residential sprinklers will solve this problem in future homes but that doesn’t help us now.

Costs to train and equip fire departments are increasing as prices rise for safety systems such as bunker gear, SCBA and apparatus. Conversely, costs for at least some public education programs have declined because of the efforts of organizations such as the Ontario Fire Marshal’s Public Fire Safety Council and its partner, the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs. These two agencies have garnered national sponsors that have helped to make educational programs more cost effective. And, of course, the Internet makes these types of public education programs available to any fire department at no charge.

Public fire-safety education is one of the three pillars of fire safety in our communities, the others being effective fireground operations and fire-safety inspection programs. Most provinces leave the establishment of fire departments to municipalities – there are no minimum requirements. In Ontario, legislators, through the Fire Safety Act, had the vision several years ago to mandate that every community needs to have – at a minimum – a smoke-alarm awareness campaign. As a basic requirement, all provincial fire-safety acts should be amended to be similar to Ontario’s.


School-based programs are the most effective way to influence fire-safety behaviour in our communities. Why? Because these programs can be taught to students in either official language, then the students take the lessons home and communicate them to their parents in the language spoken at home. This is a very effective way to get the information into households. Students should come away from the in-school program with a safety message to take home to their families and/or homework that requires them to work on an escape plan with their families. The next day, the students who successfully completed the home-safety activities are appropriately rewarded in class. The CAFC’s Fire Chief for a Day program, or other similar rewards, work well. A visit to the fire hall should reinforce teaching points given at the school. Simply having students visit the fire hall is not an effective way to get the message across as it does not get safety into the households or change behaviour. Instead, it sends an inappropriate message that the fire department will come to the rescue when the message that needs to get out is that families need to safely evacuate on their own.

I believe that for the cost to replace one single set of SCBA, a fire department in a town of 5,000 could fund a complete smoke-alarm awareness program for its schools and possibly run a door-to-door smoke-alarm replacement campaign for at-risk residents. This makes sense and is the most cost-effective life-saving program for most communities. Any community that does not have a public-education program should re-evaluate why it is in the firefighting business. Is it the thrill of fighting fires or the reward of saving lives?

NFPA has announced the theme for Fire Prevention Week: Stay Fire Smart! Don’t Get Burned. The theme is focused on burn awareness and prevention and there are significant free resources for fire departments. These include complete teachers’ lesson plans for school programs, information for families and how-to planning guides for organizing your fire department’s FPW activities. These resources are available at no charge at or

Sean Tracey, P.Eng., MIFireE, is the Canadian regional manager of the National Fire Protection Association International and formerly the Canadian Armed Forces fire marshal. Contact him at

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