First Line: An adult approach to fire prevention

August 24, 2017
Written by Samantha Hoffmann
Previous columns have discussed why all firefighters are responsible for public education, and the use of storytelling as a tool to get our messages across. It is time to add another layer: how to best teach and reach adults.


Firefighters must be able to teach people of all ages, demographics and risk groups. Sometimes education is straightforward – for example, during a station tour or a classroom visit. More often, however, firefighters are at a call, dealing with stressed and upset adults. When the emergency is over, firefighters have a valuable opportunity to teach and make positive behaviour changes.

By imposing meaning onto incidents, firefighters can provide valuable lessons to those who experience fires in their homes,

Malcolm Knowles, an adult-learning pioneer, developed five principles. He observed that adults learn best when:
  1. They understand why something is important to know or do.
  2. They have the freedom to learn in their own way.
  3. Learning is experiential.
  4. The time is right for learning.
  5. The process is positive and encouraging.
Incorporating the principles into every emergency response provides opportunity to change lives.

A word of caution: always remember that you are speaking to adults. Speaking in the tone you use with children is offensive, and the damage can be difficult to overcome. Genuine encouragement, regardless of age, is a wonderful point of human interaction.  

Good teachers have a number of tricks; they start with what students know and build from there, using examples, repetition, and novelty to make the students’ learning experiences memorable. As emergency responders, we are unaware of the level of fire-safety knowledge of the homeowners or tenants we encounter at calls. Instead of viewing those involved in incidents as willfully disobeying the law (by failing to have smoke alarms, for example), use every call as an opportunity to teach proper fire-safety behaviour.

Imagine that a member of your community has experienced a kitchen fire. As you are venting smoke from the room, you begin to criticize the homeowner for leaving a pot on the stove.  What if, instead, you said, “This is the third kitchen fire we have had this week. Kitchen fires are the No. 1 cause of home fires in Canada. We have some tips that can help you remember to stay in the kitchen when you are preparing meals.”

In a classroom, students are given time to review mistakes, relearn, and reassess until they master the content. Yet when community members fail to meet safety expectations, firefighters often respond by assuming willful ignorance, and we often see devastating consequences. When we respond negatively at incidents by reprimanding homeowners, it’s easy to understand why we fail to see positive behaviour changes; adults tend to shut down when they are criticized.

Let’s go back to the kitchen fire. Try to start a conversation and ask the homeowner what happened. Show compassion; if a pot was left on the stove because the kids were fighting or the phone rang, acknowledge how busy life can be. Then suggest alternatives, such as turning off the stove, or setting a timer, or perhaps wearing an oven mitt as a reminder that there’s something on the stove.

Make your conversation meaningful. Explain that cooking fires are common; this will alleviate some of the guilt the homeowner feels about the fire and allow for learning. Use positive language – more “do” messages than “don’t” messages. Ask questions; the responses will reaffirm that the homeowner understands what you are saying. Giving adults an opportunity to ask questions and discuss what happened allows them to learn new behaviours that will prevent reoccurrence.

Every time you meet a member of your community, whether at a call, at a community function, even in a line up at Tim Hortons, you have an opportunity to educate. You can start a conversation and begin to change safety behavior. People are receptive to safety messages when the conversation is caring, sincere, relevant, informative, and, when appropriate, includes humour.

So to sum up, I turn to this quote by Benjamin Franklin:

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”


Samantha Hoffmann has been in the fire safety field for more than 25 years; she is the public fire and life-safety officer for Barrie Fire & Emergency Service in Ontario. In 2014 Samantha was named Public Fire and Life Safety Educator of the Year by the National Fire Protection Association – the second Canadian and first Ontario educator to receive the award since its inception. Email Samantha at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow her on Twitter @shoffmannpflso

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