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NFPA Impact: February 2011

Our best hope for reducing fire fatalities lies in public education. We need to identify and change behaviour in our at-risk communities.

February 8, 2011 
By Sean Tracey

Our best hope for reducing fire fatalities lies in public education. We need to identify and change behaviour in our at-risk communities. Public education needs to be the first line of defence against fires in our community, and what better way to mitigate the impact of fires than to prevent them from occurring in the first place?

To do this, we need to have a set of consistent fire safety messages that can be delivered in every community – and not just during Fire Prevention Week. These can be delivered in the community based on a specific incident, but at the same time, these messages should be based on our understanding of proper actions for safety. The NFPA has done this through its recently released NFPA Educational Messages document (2010 edition). Fire chiefs or public affairs officials considering delivering fire-safety messages to the public should ensure that their messaging is in line with this document.

The NFPA has been involved in public safety messaging for decades and has made sure that its themes have been consistent and have targeted high-priority threats. However, experiences have refined the messages over time. The problem is that different fire- and burn-safety messages can be confusing, especially to children and older adults. We need to make sure the messaging is clear, and correct.

To help eliminate this confusion, the NFPA Educational Messages document was produced. It follows a similar refinement process to an NFPA standard. The Educational Messages Advisory Committee (EMAC), a committee of public education officials, oversees the document, which can be downloaded at .


The committee is to annually review all the NFPA’s public education messaging. The committee is chaired by Bev Gilbert, a staff member at the Office of the Ontario Fire Marshal, and the only Canadian on the committee. The committee is made up of a broad cross-section of public educators, safety experts and representatives of other associations with similar concerns to those of the NFPA. Proposed changes to the NFPA Educational Messages document can be made in writing to the EMAC; the committee members will review the submissions and vote on them.

The document covers 17 topics, from smoke alarms and carbon monoxide awareness to portable fire extinguishers. For example, the chapter on smoke alarms covers issues including proper installation, testing and maintenance, replacement, persons with disabilities and rental units. The messages have each been viewed and vetted by the EMAC’s experts and will be updated as required with majority approval. The messages are also checked to confirm that they are in line with the NFPA standards.     

As for being persistent, the fire service needs to be proactive in its messaging. We cannot just wait for Fire Prevention Week to pull out a banner and expect to see a drop in fire deaths; we need seasonal campaigns. We need to seek opportunities to deliver messages. To help, the NFPA sends out a monthly newsletter to public educators, called the NFPA Safety Source. This is an excellent reminder and identifies information and messaging resources. The NFPA has also established a network of public education advisors across North America. The aim of this group is to share best practices and each June NFPA sponsors group members’ attendance at a one-day conference ahead of the NFPA Safety Conference. Common issues are discussed and the network is there to support the members’ activities.

The preparation of the NFPA Educational Messages document is an important first step in making sure that the fire service is consistent in its messaging. Any public messaging you do should be cross-referenced with this document. But more needs to be done. We need to be relentless in our messaging and seize any opportunity to remind people of the threat they face daily.

To help ensure that communities have adequate resources for fire prevention and public education, the NFPA has established a committee to look at scales for the numbers of these personnel. Proponents of the standard, such as the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC) and the International Association of Fire Chiefs, hope that it will have a similar impact to that of NFPA 1710/1720.

The CAFC has had a committee working on a similar project for a number of months and is actively seeking involvement on the NFPA committee. Stand by for more information on this as the document is prepared over the next two years.

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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