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Fighting Fire Through Prevention: Effective Public Education

Over the past 30 years and more, I've witnessed great progress in the fire and life-safety arena; fire departments and other safety advocates have helped reduce the toll fire exacts on our society. But this fight is far from over.

As a fire service leader, you know the U.S. still has one of the worst fire-loss records of the industrialized world. Beyond the tragic fire deaths and injuries, these losses include devastating social, environmental and economic impacts. The number of deaths is in the thousands, the number of injuries in the tens of thousands and the economic losses in the billions of dollars.

To battle those statistics, let's focus on the positive this Fire Safety Month, when the spotlight shines on prevention and education as a primary solution to the problem of unwanted fire.

One very bright spot in the national fire-prevention scene is Vision 20/20, a project of the Institution of Fire Engineers U.S. Branch. With federal Fire Prevention and Safety Grant funding and a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Vision 20/20 is harnessing the steadfast support of hundreds of grassroots fire-safety advocates across the country.

Vision 20/20 has been working since 2007 to develop a comprehensive national strategy for fire prevention, helping to unite fire-prevention efforts and focus them strategically in a collective and sustained way to positively impact the fire problem in the United States.

Effective public education is a top priority within the Vision 20/20 strategic plan. It's at the heart of two of the five core strategies: Prevention Marketing and Prevention Culture.

Prevention Marketing

This strategy supports a mass-marketing approach, where exciting work has led to the selection of an overarching theme for a national fire-safety education and social marketing campaign. Through input from the field and formal social-marketing analysis conducted by Salter Mitchell, the theme Fire Is Everyone's Fight was selected and successfully field-tested with key target audiences. It serves as the unifying slogan for an ambitious initiative the United States Fire Administration is leading with growing support from the fire service and others.

We want Fire Is Everyone's Fight to become a common tagline for all fire-safety advocates, supplementing existing efforts and presenting the public with a common fire-prevention message at local, state and national levels. Under this umbrella approach, this campaign will emphasize working smoke alarms and kitchen fire safety while remaining flexible enough for communities to adapt to address local fire-safety issues.

Already, Fire Is Everyone's Fight has been embraced by leading organizations. At its meeting after the Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI) dinner in April, the CFSI National Advisory Committee passed a unanimous resolution of support for the theme and for USFA's leadership role in executing the initiative. Following the official announcement by U.S. Fire Administrator Ernie Mitchell at Fire Rescue International, the board of the IAFC's Fire and Life Safety Section passed a similar resolution—and we've only begun to announce the campaign.

In the months ahead, USFA's public-education team will reach out to individual fire organizations and others to learn what established fire-safety education efforts are already working well to increase use of working smoke alarms and reduce the incidence of cooking fires. USFA will identify gaps and resource needs and will support ongoing collaboration among all interested parties.

By signing on to participate, local fire departments, organizations and individuals will receive approved access to the Fire Is Everyone's Fight tagline and graphic to include in their prevention efforts. Contact Teresa Neal or go to the Fire Is Everyone's Fight campaign's webpage for more information.

Prevention Culture

In Strategy 3, public education is customized to protect those at highest risk of a home fire. This strategy helps fire departments implement the evidence-based Community Risk Reduction (CRR) principles that have proven effective in other countries, including the United Kingdom. In recent years, Vision 20/20 demonstration projects have replicated an effective model in which fire service personnel and local partners visit homes to install smoke alarms and provide safety education to those in greatest need.

Homes remain our primary prevention target. Research shows that 81% of all fire deaths and 76% of all fire injuries occur in homes, resulting in an estimated 2,560 deaths, 13,275 injuries and $6.6 billion in property loss (USFA). A 2007 Home Safety Council report by the Johns Hopkins University's Center for Injury Research and Policy identified people with low literacy, those living in poverty and English-language learners as being at especially high fire-death risk.

Sadly, these groups are often missed by traditional fire-prevention programs. Vision 20/20's CRR demonstration sites document that about 51% of the high-risk homes visited had no working smoke alarm—not a single one. This finding is crucial, since in the U.S., 38% of home fire deaths are in homes with no working smoke alarms; 24% are in homes where smoke alarms were present but didn't work (NFPA).

Clearly, our message is not getting through to everyone. Social-marketing research shows there are only three ways communication can lead to behavior change. The message must

  • Reveal a new benefit of the behavior to the audience,
  • Help the audience better appreciate a benefit they already knew of, or
  • Reduce a barrier to the behavior (if the audience already wanted to do it).

Vision 20/20 has just embarked on a new round of testing with Salter Mitchell to determine what fire-safety messages pack the most potential to get people to install, test or maintain fire alarms or to prevent kitchen fires. Results will be analyzed and shared with the fire and life safety field and with USFA to guide Fire Is Everyone's Fight.

So despite the tough economy, there's good news to inspire our public-education efforts. Adversity is leading to smarter investment in prevention and resource sharing based on what really works.

Fire is everyone's fight, and there are new tools, methods and collaborative attitude to help us win it.

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