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NFPA Impact: Spreading the message, consistently and accurately

April 27, 2020
By Laura King


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When I ask people in workshops and seminars how they “do” public education, the answers are as expected: we go into schools; we have open houses; we use social media. All are good responses. We’re communicating customized messages to people so they can better protect their families from fire and other hazards by changing their behaviour. That’s public education.

You know the messages: Test smoke alarms at least once a month. Plan and practice your escape. The messages are familiar, seemingly old hat, perhaps. But those messages, and the context around them, are finely crafted; every word in every message is there for a reason.

The messages (and the greater context) come from the NFPA, from a team of technical experts who develop, review, amend, and update the wording and content to ensure people on the frontlines have consistent, accurate tools for fire prevention and public education.

The document that defines NFPA’s messages is called the Education Messaging Advisory Committee desk reference, or EMAC. The title is a mouthful, so, for simplicity, we’ll call it the messaging guide.

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The messaging guide is updated regularly by members of the committee, all subject-matter experts. The 2020 review meeting was scheduled for March but was postponed; hopefully, the committee will meet in the fall and the new version of the messaging guide will be available by early 2021.

The week the committee was supposed to meet to update the messaging was the first week of COVID-19 restrictions in Canada and the United States. As I watched, and scrutinized the sometimes confusing messaging around self-isolating and testing and symptoms, the importance of NFPA’s consistent and accurate messaging struck me on a new level.

Less-than-perfect messaging in crisis communication leads to confusion. Confusion leads to bad decisions. Bad decisions lead to tragedy. Ideally, messaging is developed and in place before an emergency, hence, the NFPA messaging guide – a carefully thought out bible for every firefighter, educator, inspector, and chief officer.

The guide provides context and background; it’s written so fire personnel will understand the reasons for the messages before customizing and disseminating them with conviction, passion and complete clarity.

You wouldn’t tell people to test their smoke alarms at least once a month if you didn’t believe that working smoke alarms save lives and provide the best chance (other than sprinklers) for occupants to escape a structure fire.

You wouldn’t tell people to plan and practice their escape if you didn’t believe that doing so increased the likelihood of a positive outcome.

We learned from the early days of COVID-19 just how transient our society is, which is why it’s critical that we use the same messaging, from coast to coast to coast. We know that repetition and consistency breed compliance.

So, how do you find the messaging guide? Go to www.nfpa.org, click on public education, then educational messaging. The document is free to download. Print it, save it to your desktop, bookmark it – whatever works for you. A French version of the guide is on the Canadian resources page (www.nfpa.org, click public education, then Canadian fire-education materials).

The guide includes messages for kids, and easy-to-read messages for those for whom English is not a first language. In 2018, the NFPA added messaging about wildfire and university and college housing. When the committee meets next, it will likely clarify messaging around closing bedroom doors when sleeping, based on research and data, so everyone can use and share correctly worded guidance.

I see lots of messaging on social media, some accurate and correct, some that could use clarity. As technology develops, so do the messages. For example, I saw “Change your clocks, change your batteries” dozens of times in early March, but no direction for occupants whose alarms are interconnected or powered by 10-year sealed batteries. Make sure, when using messaging, that it’s current and accurate. Check the messaging guide, find your subject matter, and ensure the guidance you provide to your followers or your community is correct and consistent.

There are more ways than ever to reach people today. Be creative in the use of social media platforms; be creative with graphics and pop-culture references; be creative with catchy phrases, rhymes, even poetry! But first, be accurate.


Laura King is the NFPA’s public education representative for Canada. Contact her at canadacrr@NFPA.org and follow her on Twitter at @LauraKingNFPA.


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