35 years ago, my department had very little to do with Public Education. There was a Prevention Division, but no real accountability on what businesses got inspected or how often. It was not uncommon to have a business go for seven or more years without a visit from an inspector. In the early 1980’s, a Public Education Program was started. First a traveling puppet show to educate children on fire safety practices, and later, involvement with engine companies that assisted the Pub Ed personnel and even did some education on their own. It was a start.
Very soon after we started a Smoke Alarm program and gave away and installed thousands of them. Ten years later we wanted to start over but had no real record of where the first ones were installed. Now, 30 years later, we still do not have a smoke alarm in every residence. And even today you can find officers and firefighters who believe we should only roll out of the station for alarms (And of course for groceries).
So what happened? We started out like gangbusters and after many years it just faded away. There are several reasons.
First, it starts at the top. The fire chief has to have a vision regarding public education and he has to convey that to personnel every chance he gets. He has to live it. And it does wonders to actually show up at some events or education programs. Second, whenever there was a budget cut to be made, the first positions the chief usually looks at is the civilians in Public Education. I have heard this over and over at seminars and at National Fire Academy classes. See #1, it starts at the top. Leaders today have to get creative. Find the money elsewhere, for example, does the department really need all of those secretaries, do we really need all of those reserve vehicles, can overtime be trimmed, can the cost for supplies be trimmed, and how about using three firefighters on a 40 hour workweek whose job it is to do public education. And in between, they could still be available for calls.
Third, apply for grants. Especially now it might pay to hire a part time person to just write grants and probably get most of their salary paid for with a grant. Prevention supplies, safety props and safety trailers can all be purchased with grant money. Fourth, have a real Public Information Officer. Some departments have one but they only report on an event if they are available or something happens when they are on duty. There are so many outlets to publish articles sand photos and these garner valuable support for the department. Other people will not know what your department is doing if you don’t tell them. Other people include the Mayor, City Council, news media, other fire departments, and other internal departments.
I started a newsletter that was published once a week that included only four or five fire or rescue events that occurred in the week prior. This was sent to all other internal department heads, Mayor and council, other departments, and all of the fire stations. After just a few short weeks, if we missed one, council members called to see what happened. This was free to produce, no grant money, just some typing. And now there are two other departments in the county that are doing the same thing.
It doesn’t take much to get the prevention ball rolling. But it does start at the top. Where do you as a leader stand on the issue? Or are you still sitting waiting for the next alarm? Smokey says “Only you can prevent forest fires”. Modern thinking adds, “Only you as a leader can turn the opinion tide around and get the fire prevention/public education ball rolling”.
Stay safe. Everyone goes home.