Refining public education
By Phillip Shuster
May 2016 - Does your fire department’s public-education program work? If you think it does, can you prove it?
By Phillip Shuster
With reduced fire-department budgets, fewer structure fires, and the shift to prevention from reaction, fire chiefs are likely to be questioned by council about the effectiveness of their departments’ fire and life-safety programs. Do the public-education resources make a difference? Are the lessons created based on data and trends?
As someone who has worked extensively with quantitative data and qualitative data within post-secondary and private-sector environments, I was surprised when I began to analyze how fire departments across Canada implement their educational programming. Aside from a small number of departments – actually, just one that I could find, Surrey Fire Service in British Columbia – a majority of fire departments have implemented education programs based on very little to no demographic data to explain their existence.
Even more concerning, from my perspective, is the fact that fire departments are focusing on a group that lack data to justify the large volume of resources being used. For some reason it has been engrained in our collective minds that a successful education program must be targeted at elementary-school aged children. This approach would be logical, of course, if statistics and data proved that fires are caused by children. However, this is not the case. We all know the No. 1 cause of home fires is unattended cooking. Unless family dynamics have changed since I was a child, adults are responsible for the cooking. Further, even if a high percentage of fires in your community was caused by children having access to heat sources, is that not directly related to a failure of proper adult supervision? While I believe educating children is beneficial, unless you can justify spending resources on solely educating school-aged children with tangible data, you may have to develop different approaches.
Therefore, I began to equate many of these education programs with hamster wheels that never stopped spinning because there simply was neither a rational start nor a logical end. So in order to shed some light on the topic and perhaps help departments start the process of evaluating and creating their education programs, I have come up with four steps to public education self-awareness. I do not claim to be establishing universal truths but I hope to strengthen public-education programming for all fire departments to help us better serve the communities we protect.
- Know what types of fires are occurring in your community and where they are happening. While this may sound simplistic, many of us fail to use the good data we have. It is helpful to know that in your municipality X number of fires caused by Y occurred Z amount of times in the last year. However, knowing where these fires occurred is perhaps an even greater benefit. Place on a map a sticker for every fire incident your department had in the past five years. You may start to realize as you are plotting the incidents and identifying what caused these fires that clusters start to form. These clusters of incidents will start to illuminate exactly where you need to focus your efforts.
- Gather as much data as you can about who is causing the fires in the clustered areas. Now that you know where these fires are occurring and how they are happening, it is vital to understand who is starting these fires. If we lack knowledge on the behaviours of the people who cause the fires in our communities, how do we expect to effectively deliver fire-safety messaging to them? Behaviours include habits such as where these people shop, websites they visit, income levels, hobbies, education, food-delivery preferences and so forth. Now, before you start going door to door conducting surveys to gather this data, there are organizations that have it readily available for you. Statistics Canada is a great place to start to get the broad range of data but companies such as Environics Analytics have collected consumer data and allow you to search using postal codes to gather community profiles. While this seems like a daunting task, the better the data you have the more effective your education programs will be. It is no coincidence that some of the most successful consumer-product companies in the world have some of the best analytical data.
- Start to establish programs with attainable goals focusing on one area at a time. With all that data you collected, the next logical step would be to start creating actions to target the group that is responsible for the fires in your community. Here’s an example. A fire department realizes that in the past five years there has been a high rate of unattended cooking fires in the south-end area of the municipality. Upon further analysis, it is determined that the fires were caused by unattended cooking that was occurring in the daytime. Now, using demographic data, it becomes obvious that a majority of the households in that postal-code area have a large percentage of stay-at-home parents who frequent an online DIY-for-women blog and who also enjoy doing yoga. From this information the fire department creates the goal of reducing cooking fires in that area by 20 per cent over the next five years by buying ad space on the DIY blog and having fire-safety information nights at a local yoga studio. In this case, using raw data, the fire department was able to justify its actions through qualitative research and by setting realistic goals. Notice that it was not recommended that this particular public-education approach be used for the entire city. Rather, the reduction goal was set specifically for the area in which those analyzing the data knew certain demographic characteristics about those who were causing the fires. The blog-ad and yoga-studio approach would not work five blocks north where the households consisted of people who enjoyed football and fishing trips.
- Evaluate, and if you fail, try again. Once you set your action items and education programs, you must also evaluate effectiveness. There is always risk that if you evaluate and make changes too soon you may not give the program enough time to succeed. However using resources over a long period with no new results is also inefficient. Ideally, two to five years is a target timeframe for testing new programs. If you find that your activities do not reduce fire loss in your community, do not give up, rather fine tune the programs and use other tools to get your message across.
Remember, you must resist the temptation to go back to your old ways of conducting your education programs. As UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, failure isn’t fatal, but failure to change might be.
Prior to joining Brampton Fire and Emergency Services in 2009, Phillip Shuster had worked in the private sector as a project manager for a marketing firm with clients including Ford, Microsoft Canada and General Mills. Shuster has a master’s degree in public policy from McMaster University and an undergraduate degree in international relations from the University of Toronto. Shuster is a fire/life safety educator with BFES with an interest in statistical analysis and outreach to diverse communities. Email Shuster at Phillip.Shuster@Brampton.ca