Social media can be used to spread safety message

July 17, 2018
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Social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube have been lovingly embraced by a large number of Canadians, nearly 23 million to be exact, young, old and every age in-between.

Now, fire departments and firefighters are being encouraged to jump aboard the bandwagon and use them to promote their safety messages.

Tanya Bettridge, director of communications at the Ontario Fire & Life Safety Education (OFLSE), says fire departments need to get with the digital age and adopt social media tools to plug their points.

“If you don’t have social media in your fire department, get it,” she said in remarks to an audience of 120 people at the 104th Maritime Fire Chiefs Association conference held in Moncton, N.B. on July 16.

In today’s world, social media is one of the best ways for fire departments to draw attention to the safety cause, she said.

Bettridge, who is public educator/administrative assistant at Perth East and West Perth fire departments in Ontario, was one of several speakers who led sessions at the four-day conference.

She was a driving force behind a farm fire safety program at the Perth departments. The program has since been adopted by fire departments and agencies across North America.

Her remarks were focused on how firefighters can get their safety messages to the public via the media.

Bettridge said social media has become a must-have tool for fire departments that want to get the public thinking more seriously about safety.

“It is the most inexpensive public education tool that you can use,” she said, noting a post on social media can be shared instantaneously around the world.

Bettridge said strong public safety messaging is important because it can save lives, but she also cautioned departments to figure out in advance what will determine if a campaign has been successful.

For example, she said, safety campaigns could be deemed a success if accidents or deaths decrease or the program wins an award while other times it might be because feedback was good, the message was retweeted or people took action and changed their behavior because of it.

Bettridge said fire departments shouldn’t ignore online resources because three quarters of Canadians use at least one type of social media and nine billion videos are watched around the world each day on Snapchat.

“That’s where your audience is,” she said.

Instead of pushing long-winded, text-heavy messages, Bettridge believes that fire departments would also be wiser to opt for content that pulls at the heartstrings.

When trying to promote a CPR course, for example, she said, it might be more beneficial to show a video that depicts what could happen to a loved one if they are in trouble and nobody is trained to help.

To illustrate her point, Bettridge showed a clip produced by St. John Ambulance in Australia in which a mother finds her son unconscious in a swimming pool but is unable to save him because she has no training. When the video was released it resulted in an increase in the number of people at the course.

To make messaging more effective, Bettridge said fire personnel must understand human behavior and especially take note of the fact fire is not high on the list of things most people are afraid of, so just warning them to be wary is not going to work as well as some other types of messaging.

Fear of spiders and heights top the list of things most people fear. Death is number 13 on the list and fire is much lower down at 52.

“More people are afraid of butterflies and buttons than fire,” noted Bettridge. “Humans aren’t afraid of fire but are afraid of death.”

Instead of posting warnings about fire then, she said messages would have more impact if they sent a strong signal that death could occur from a certain set of actions.

Bettridge also said that fire departments should concentrate on striking while the iron is hot – in other words, posting safety messages right after an accident or fire when the details are still fresh.

After a blaze occurs in a community, she said, a fire department could make it more personal by asking residents if they know 10 people and pointing out statistics indicate one of them could die in a fire.

Another way to get people thinking more seriously about safety would be to ask them to ponder how long it would take to escape a fire in their home and when firefighters would arrive, said Bettridge.

And, when talking to people about smoke alarms, firefighters might think about distributing a door hanger with a message noting the department wants to ensure the resident is protected, she said.

“It gets the message out in a timely way. It gets in their mind that a fire is possible and they should do something about it.”

In their messaging, fire departments might also consider the possibility of incorporating humour, sarcasm, witty slogans or songs, and quotes into their safety messaging, perhaps something as simple as adding one line to the end of a message to give it a more memorable twist, said Bettridge.

So, for instance, a simple message like ‘We love fire safety’ could have a humorous phrase added to the end such as, ‘like Kanye West loves Kanye West,’ she said.

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