Ohio's fire safety program is one to copy and expand

The state is combining reward and punishment incentives and including aspects of public safety beyond fire


Years ago when I was a newspaper reporter, I would publish a full list of area restaurants’ quarterly health department inspection scores. Those with failing scores got special attention. And as you can imagine, they weren’t too happy with me.

But it gave readers the power to make informed choices about their safety. It also provided some impetus for restaurants to clean up their act.

Psychologists have long argued over which is the more effective behavior modification technique: punishment or reward.

A recent study that examined how children responded to coins offered versus coins taken away, showed the children were more responsive when faced with losing coins. Interestingly, the value of the coin mattered on the reward side, but was irrelevant on the punishment side — it made no difference if they lost a nickel or a quarter.

Other similar studies used workers and bonuses and adults and video game points. Basically, one group started off with nothing but could earn points or cash based on performance and the other group started off with the points or cash that it could lose based on poor performance. People tried harder when they had something to lose.

Likewise, positive rewards as a motivator also have a long line of research to fall back on. Consider how quickly a rat learns to push a bar if a bit of food is delivered after every push.

These same rules we see play out in rats, children and workers also are at work with businesses. Fear of fines, loss of license and loss of revenue are as powerful at motivating behavior as is the prospect of adding more customers.

That’s why a private-public program in Ohio is so intriguing.

Safe Stay

In 2014, Ohio Governor John Kasich signed into law a bill that included a provision for the Safe Stay program. Safe Stay awards hotels and extended-stay facilities with a special designation for completing 60 consecutive months without having a variety of convictions or a finding of nuisance and completing 24 consecutive months of maintaining its license and meeting all fire and sanitation codes.

The fire marshal’s inspectors inspect every hotel once a year and in response to any complaint. Minor violations, those that are corrected while the inspector is still on site, are forgiven and do not count against the facility’s Safe Stay status.

But it’s that first requirement that deserves a closer look. Tracie Boyd clearly spells it out in the Winter 2016 edition of State Fire Marshal News. Boyd writes that in addition to not being found a nuisance, facilities cannot have any convictions for lewdness, assignation, prostitution or drug activity.

And that’s interesting as it brings law enforcement into the realm of fire inspections. The program also requires the operations are up to snuff on their sanitary standards — something the fire code inspector checks for.

The state began handing out its Stay Safe decals in January; 43 facilities have qualified so far and can use designation on site and in advertising to boost their business.

“Over time and as the program grows and all become familiar with it, Ohioans and the traveling public will recognize the logo much like they do a ‘Better Business Bureau’ or a ‘AAA’ decal,” State Fire Marshal Larry L. Flowers is quoted saying on the Ohio Fire Marshal’s website.

Part of the beauty of this program is that it brings different agencies under a safety umbrella and serves to help both the public in its choices and private businesses in their ability to compete. And I have to imagine the cost to the state is little to none.

The other beautiful thing about this program is that it bridges a positive reward structure (Safe Stay status) with its existing punitive structure (fines and citations). And, once they have that status, the psychological motivation not to lose it will kick in.

It will take years before a fair assessment of this program’s success or failure can be made. It is, however, a very compelling model that can be expanded beyond hotels to restaurants, theaters and any other private business where people gather.

It is also a compelling model for showing the public how the fire service plays a key role in their safety beyond responding when the alarm sounds.

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