Around our great country, the arrival of fall is upon us. If you are lucky enough to live where you have a climate, fall signals the arrival of cool air, the changing colors of foliage and the eventual falling of leaves.
Fall is my favorite time of year. Football has returned, hockey is right around the corner. It's fun to watch college and NFL games and see people bundled up as I chastise the kids for opening the door and letting the air conditioning out.
Another fall tradition is, of course, Fire Prevention Week. The first Fire Prevention Week, established by President Calvin Coolidge in 1925, was designated from October 4-10 of that same year.
It happens to coincide with the annual anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire. Almost everybody has heard the legendary story of Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicking over a lantern and starting the inferno.
As I looked up the dates and information for this column, I couldn't help but notice the barn was owned by Patrick and Catherine O'Leary. You only ever heard about Mrs. O'Leary. How did Paddie O'Leary escape the blame on this one? I guess after looking around the smoking wasteland that was once Chicago, he said, "I love ya' baby, but you're on your own on this one."
There is even controversy as to the actual involvement of Mrs. O'Leary and her prize beau vine. Rumors remain about the involvement of a person named Pegleg Sullivan. He had to have been a colorful character.
But I digress. Now, October means lots of trips to schools to preach the word of fire prevention to schoolchildren. Fire safety education is something we do all year long — we just do a lot more of it during Fire Prevention Week.
I don't mind doing it for several reasons — probably the most important being that I really enjoyed it when the local volunteer fire department came to school when I was young.
With this debilitating fire service affliction I have, I couldn't wait every year for their visit. They wore these spiffy red jackets with a big Maltese cross embroidered on the front. Kind of like a high school letter jacket. It was one of the few activities I actually got something out of in my lackluster school career.
When one gets in front of a classroom, there are several key points to remember. We cover the usual points like smoke detectors, 911, stop-drop-and roll, matches, exit drills and the meeting place.
A key point I always cover is the fact that your smoke detector going off doesn't automatically send in the cavalry — somebody still needs to call the fire department. A new firefighter once asked me why I mentioned that.
I explained to him I was once berated by a woman who had a small kitchen fire and was furious that we did not show up when her smoke detector went off. Don't take for granted what people know or should know.
I always try to start off with a public service disclaimer: "Ok, boys and girls. I am going to explain some things, and then I will answer all your questions at the end. So if you have a question, save it until that time and then put your hand up."
It never works. A hand will go up immediately. However, what this does do is enable the teacher to help you. An alert teacher will say, "Johnny, the fireman said questions at the end." He will usually ask the question anyway or make a comment. This could be an important clue for you when it comes to establishing the four kids you'll absolutely, unequivocably meet during every Fire Prevention Week:
The Random Thought Kid
Johnny, above, could well be the Random Thought Kid. Identify and stay away from this one. They could go anywhere, on any subject matter. It usually has nothing to do with fire safety. "My uncle cut off the tail of my aunt's dog." I usually smile, and say, "Well, that's nice." However, this is often met with the reply, "My dad drinks paint thinner."
My Dad is a Fireman
"My dad is a fireman and he has saved the world five times. He got a medal from the Queen of England." Not too common, but they do show up now and again. A "Well, how about that" works well on these.
The I Can't Remember my Question Kid
Bless their hearts. The 'I Can't Remember my Question' kids always want to be involved, but just can't muster a question. They raise their hands and make "Ooooh, ooooh, ooooh" sounds.
However, when you call on them they place their hands over their mouths and stare at you. I will ask if they forgot their question and they will always nod their head in the affirmative.
I always tell them I'll come back to them when they think of it. Sure enough, in a minute or two, "Ooooh, ooooh, ooooh," …and the same drill.
The 'What If' Kid
Last but far from least is my personal favorite: The 'What If' Kid. I enjoy these ones.
They are very creative and really have to work at their craft. For example, after an explanation of having two ways out of your house, The 'What If' Kid will go to work.
"What if a plane crashes at your front door and a cotton gin is on fire at your back door?" I calmly explain you would probably have to seek egress from a first floor window. Nope, a good 'What If' Kid is ready for that. "Well, what if there are hungry lions outside all the windows?" It's just not your day, is it?
Jokes aside, while there will be trying moments, always remember this is important work. I have seen children go back into a house to retrieve a possession and not make it back out.
I once stood outside of a small woodframe house one Christmas Eve with a mother whose house was blazing away. I had been sent by the chief to try to find out how many kids were in the house and how many were out.
I saw the hopelessness and the reflection of the flames on her face. There was no meeting place and she had no idea what kids were where. A little girl was not outside. She never made it out of her room. That's why I never mind a 30-minute school visit, nor a few silly questions.