No size fits all

How departments can tailor their public education to a target audience
May 01, 2016
Written by Tanya bettridge
Learn who to target by identifying the three most common emergency response incidents in a community in the past three, five and 10 years, and look at occupancy and cause.
Learn who to target by identifying the three most common emergency response incidents in a community in the past three, five and 10 years, and look at occupancy and cause. Photo: Fotolia
May 2016 - Fire departments across the country rely on provincial or territorial statistics and provincial or territorial, national or international solutions. The more people a community has, the more incidents will occur. If the No. 1 problem in your province is cooking fires, it is likely more reflective of what goes on in major cities than in remote or rural communities.


However, effective public education must start and end with your own community; ergo, the process must begin with assessing the risks in your community. Look at your fire department’s emergency response incidents in the past three, five and 10 years. Identify the three most common incidents and, in the case of fires, look at the occupancy and cause. If your department identifies that the top three emergency response types are wood stove or chimney fires (farm dwellings, caused by creosote or maintenance), motor-vehicle collisions and barn fires, then the NFPA’s Fire Prevention Week message may not be the most effective tool to save lives in your community.

■ Fill the gap
Once you’ve identified your top three risks or areas of focus, determine where you can find the tools and resources needed to reach your audience. The organization that your fire department usually relies on for public-education material may have resources to address wood stove and chimney fires, but not motor-vehicle collisions or barn fires. Not having the material is not an excuse to skip over the risk; rather, it’s an opportunity for your staff to develop partnerships and get creative.

Motor-vehicle collisions are a prime opportunity for a partnership with police organizations. A campaign on obeying stop signs, slowing down, or driving according to conditions, could be even more effective if it’s promoted by both the police and fire department. In this case, both organizations share the same goal, so why not share in the solution?

Barn fire safety presents an opportunity to get creative. Until recently, most provincial, national and international fire authorities have had few resources to offer on that topic; find resourceful ways to fill in the gap. Work with the farming community groups, farm-safety groups and provincial farming industry groups to create a farm fire-prevention program. Post-secondary colleges and universities with agriculture programs may also be interested in being involved. The NFPA recently introduced some barn fire safety resources that may help launch a public education campaign.

Sometimes, it’s not the topic that is being missed, but the audience itself. Vancouver, Toronto and Brampton, Ont., have each focused on multi-language delivery of fire-safety education and prevention programming and invested in more diverse workforces. These decisions are direct reflections of their evolving community cultures; significant populations of at-risk residents are not English speaking and require communication in other languages. Note: the NFPA also offers resources in several languages.



■ Many hands prevent more fires
Your community may not be unique in the risks it has identified. Attend regional or provincial fire-service events and meetings and engage with fellow departments. Identify potential partners who may also be looking for risk-similar communities. Doubling or tripling the resources while fractioning the cost to develop risk-specific programming will benefit everyone involved, including municipalities’ taxpayers and councils. Joining forces also broadens the talent pool. One department may have someone who is marketing-savvy, while another may have someone with sponsorship avenues, industry connections or  expertise dealing with the identified risks.

A simple Google search or a conversation at a regional fire get-together will tell you if anyone else has already tackled the same risks you’ve identified for your community. One of the best things about the fire-service is its willingness to network and share. Chances are there is a program already designed and you just need to tweak and implement. Look at industries related to the risks (such as wood stove manufacturers or builder associations, safety associations, and so on) to see if they have programming in place that you can use or adopt. The solution might be with a fire department or safety organization two provinces over. Thanks to modern technology, the answer to “Does anyone have . . .” is much closer than it was 10 or 20 years ago.

■ Jack of all trades, master of none
One of my biggest pet peeves in the area of public education is reliance on and misuse of generic messaging. Gearing a topic-specific message to everyone catches the attention of almost no one. If you have a fire-incident problem because chimneys and woodstoves are not being properly maintained, a “Sparky says . . .” message will rarely motivate adults who are responsible for appliance maintenance. You wouldn’t present about fire safety for seniors to a high school class – that would be silly. Using children-geared tools when trying to change an adult population’s behaviour is just as silly.

Ask yourself whose behaviour you want to change and create or direct your messaging accordingly. Don’t be afraid to push the envelope and have some fun with it. There are two methods fire departments use for public education campaigns:

The do-as-we-have method:
  1. Identify the message you want to give.
  2. Find generic messaging from provincial/territorial/national authority.
  3. Use any and all available channels to send it out.
The do-what-will-actually-work method:
  1. Look at your community’s risks and identify whose attention you need.
  2. Catch the attention of the identified audience with materials that appeal to them and use channels that will be most effective (for example: social media for teens, direct mail for seniors, classroom visits for children).
  3. While you have their attention, insert safety messaging.
■ Risk-based problems, solutions and success
The start and finish line are the same when it comes to tracking your public-education campaign’s success. The answer to whether or not your efforts have been successful can be found by looking at the number of incidents before and after program implementation; be patient, though, as it may take a few years for obvious results to emerge. You can keep those involved motivated by celebrating small milestones. Even a five per cent decrease is something to be proud of, especially when we’re talking about saving lives, preventing injury or decreasing loss.

Plan your success. Our fire-service spirits are easily dampened if we focus on things such as risks, injuries, death and destruction. Pack something positive into the program by ensuring there is a recognition element. Certificates, plaques or other recognition tools should be given – and very publicly – to those citizens, businesses, council and committee members and even fire personnel who have gone above and beyond to help your fire department achieve its goals and address the risks. Don’t forget our media friends, as they are often called upon to help us promote fire safety.

■ Run your race
Whether you’re in a race against cooking fires, motor-vehicle collisions, barn fires or language barriers, your start and finish depend on identifying the risks – and target audience – in your community. Having risks that are unique and which require audience-specific messaging shouldn’t be considered a monstrous obstacle; I like to think of them as problems that provide fire departments opportunities for creativity, collaboration, celebration and even the chance to have a little fun.


Tanya Bettridge is an administrative assistant and public educator for the Perth East and West Perth fire departments in Ontario. Email Tanya at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow her on Twitter @PEFDPubEd




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