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Fire & Life Safety: What If No One Understands Your Message?

This seems tremendously obvious, but our industry can’t reduce fires and injuries if our audience doesn’t understand our safety message.

A lot of our industry terms work well when we’re talking to colleagues, but not as much when we’re talking to a neighborhood family. Terms like egress, detector vs. alarm, operable, flammable liquid and proper ventilation aren’t easily understood by the public.

Thinking about your message from your audience’s perspective is the best way to ensure it’s understood and acted on. PlainLanguage.gov describes its philosophy as enabling users to find what they need, understand what they find and use it to meet their needs.

Plain language should make your message clear with very little analysis on your reader’s part.

Recently, the city of Saint Paul rewrote its fire-safety inspection appointment letter for rental-property owners in plain language. The previous letter generated questions from customers:

  • They didn’t understand what was expected of them.
  • They were showing up to appointments ill prepared.
  • We ended up using the time to explain the process instead of doing the process.

We wrote the new appointment letter with the customer in mind:

  • Are they new to this process or a seasoned veteran?
  • Are they really going to read an entire page of information?
  • Do they understand what the inspection is for?
  • Do they understand they have to meet us at the property at the appointed date and time?

We also created an owner’s self-inspection affidavit for owners to complete after the property becomes a rental and before the division conducts a full inspection. The goal was for the property manager to take responsibility from the beginning, filling out the form without outside assistance from a fire safety expert.

We covered 16 areas of concern with simple questions like “Do all the windows and doors open, close and latch freely?” We didn’t ask, “Do all sleeping rooms have an egress-compliant window?”

We removed ambiguous or complex items that are covered at the full inspection. In prioritizing our work, we move any affidavits that contain suspect or alarming information up the list for inspection.

Creating documents in plain language doesn’t have to be hard. The easiest thing to do is give your document to someone outside the industry to review—a local librarian, street maintenance worker, etc.—to see what questions they have. This isn’t dumbing down your content; it’s thinking about who you want to reach and the best way to use your resources to reach them.

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