NFPA Impact: It’s time to embrace the first line of defence
By Laura King
It was a pretty remarkable Twitter post – Ontario Fire Marshal Jon Pegg, on Jan. 28, pleading with followers and anyone else who happened upon his short video to be vigilant; to install and maintain smoke alarms. In the first 27 days of January, 17 people died in home fires in Ontario, among them, three children on a First Nation, and three young brothers in a townhouse fire in Brampton.Even after Pegg posted his video, there were four more fatalities – 21 in the first month of 2022. That number seemed alarmingly high, but a year earlier, in January 2021, there were 22 reported fire deaths in Ontario.
Observationally, when fire fatalities occur, vulnerable people are often involved, and smoke alarms are often not functioning. In 2016, 2020 and 2021 there were more than 100 fire fatalities in Ontario. In other years between 2011 and 2019, there were between 70 and 95 fire fatalities. In 2021 there were 124 fire fatalities.
With technology, and robust codes and standards, why is this happening? There are many reasons; a couple stand out.
One, few jurisdictions have adopted the most recent codes and standards, which include smoke alarms in all bedrooms and sprinklers in single family dwellings. Two, behaviour change, which is the root of public education, and which is what we’re asking people to do by installing and maintaining smoke alarms and developing a home escape plan, is complex.
Indeed, behaviour change is a significant physiological and sociological challenge that requires those advocating for change to have skill, knowledge, a long-term commitment, tools, budgets, and community partnerships to work with groups such as low-income families, Indigenous people, older adults who live alone, busy families with young children, and single parents.
I often lament the fact that we’re all on Twitter patting each other on the back for our fire-prevention and public-education messaging (me included). Are we reaching the public and target audiences identified in community risk assessments? You all know the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
Most Ontario, and Canadian, fire departments have zero to two fire and life safety educators (save Toronto and the other large, career departments). If we don’t change the way we “do” public education, the numbers of fatalities, the failures to maintain smoke and CO alarms, won’t change.
Why don’t we run ads on YouTube? Why aren’t there promotions for working smoke alarms at grocery check outs? Why aren’t we working with banks to include fire-safety messages in apps?
We’re stymied by the system and structure, because fire is a municipal responsibility and no single fire department has the budget or manpower to do the things mentioned above (but regions could work together), and because some chief officers are of the mindset that an inspector is of more value than a trained fire and life-safety educator,.Yet, most fatalities happen in homes, where inspectors play a minimal role.
The most important part of community risk reduction (NFPA 1300) is partnerships with organizations that can reach populations to which fire services lack access. To have a better-informed public (a key component of the NFPA Fire and Life Safety Ecosystem), we need more active fire and life-safety educators. Lots of fire departments train operations crews to NFPA 1035, fire and life safety educator, but often are unable to provide the next steps, teaching crews to work with target audiences. We need to go places we don’t normally go: door to door, talking to people face to face. It’s not easy. There are challenges with the application of manpower, unions, timing, logistics, and privacy.
Research shows that one-on-one conversations (from six feet away, behind masks if necessary) with people about their safety has a significant impact, far more so than a tweet or link on a website. Pegg’s plea was to the public, to be vigilant, to change their behaviour about fire safety and working smoke alarms. And although the tweet was picked up by news outlets seen by lots of Ontarians, every fire and life safety educator knows that behaviour change is not that simple.
My plea is to municipalities, AHJs and fire departments. Invest in the first line of defence, train everyone to NFPA 1035, work with associations and get more resources into vulnerable neighbourhoods, grocery stores, hair salons, arenas, parks, gyms, more coffee shops (Ontario has a fabulous partnership with Tim Hortons), soccer fields, dance studios, restaurants, corner stores, knock on doors, and break down barriers to change.Those actions will make a difference. Our Twitter posts, not so much.
Laura King is the NFPA’s regional director for Canada. Contact her about codes and standards, and public education, at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @LauraKingNFPA.