‘Information fatigue’ is making it harder for our safety messages to stick

The fire service must recommit to reaching our newest “hard to reach” population – the general public


We used to define the “hard to reach” as the elderly, those with physical or cognitive impairments, and perhaps non-English-speaking or immigrant populations to our communities. It seems now, though, that we have a new “hard to reach” group – the entire general public. I’m not sure if we can fully blame it on the pandemic, but it appears that are facing an increasing indifference to our overall efforts in community risk reduction (CRR) – and it’s having consequences.

Why is this the case? For one, many people are simply exhausted from all that has happened in the past 18 months – the impact on individuals, families and businesses. As a result, it seems that most of our prevention messages are being deemed as insignificant, displayed by a “leave me alone” attitude. Let’s face it, many people are suffering from information fatigue and overload.

Case in point, this week there was a residential structure fire called in by a neighbor who saw smoke and flames coming from several second-floor bedroom windows of the house next door. The caller also knew that four children resided there and thought were home in the house. And we all know that any dispatch that includes the statement, “working structure fire, smoke and flame from the second floor” will get your attention, but add “there may be four children still in the home,” and it really puts some extra quickness in your step.

The pandemic has left us with a new challenge to reach a new “hard to reach” group with any CRR or safety issue.
The pandemic has left us with a new challenge to reach a new “hard to reach” group with any CRR or safety issue. (Photo/Getty Images)

Fortunately, the caller remained on the line with dispatch, and we subsequently received follow-up messages stating, “two children have exited the house” and then “all four children are safe with the neighbor,” both before the arrival of the first units.

The initial crews (engine, medic and rescue) mounted an aggressive offensive attack on the second floor with the rescue crew pulling a second line and completing a primary search of the first and second floors to make sure there truly was an “all clear.” Both units were backed up by the next-arriving engine pulling a third line before going to other areas of the second floor to check for extension. The fire itself could not have been better fought by our firefighters, but it left me puzzled over how this happened, here.

This home is in an eclectic middle-class neighborhood consisting of very nice and well-maintained homes. There were smoke detectors throughout the residence, yet according to the first-arriving crews, none were sounding. There were three circuit breakers tripped by the fire, so if these were hard-wired, that may have initially affected the detectors. But even so, these would have adequate battery backup, if well maintained. I suspect that the batteries on these detectors may never have been changed.

Yes, we avoided a tragedy here, with no children being injured or killed in the blaze, but it was not because of our persistent efforts to publicize the need to maintain a home’s smoke detectors. We avoided a tragedy by the actions of a neighbor who spotted the fire, called 911, and made sure the children had safely exited the home. “Change your clock, change your battery” is one of our most long-standing, well-known campaigns that we, and so many departments, hammer home every single year. Could even that message have been lost amid the stress of 2020?

The pandemic has left us with a new challenge to reach a new “hard to reach” group with any CRR or safety issue.

As another example, despite our warnings of the dangers of fireworks, plus strict fireworks laws, in Ohio, I would bet that injuries and deaths from fireworks incidents in and around this past Fourth of July were higher than previous years (data is not yet available for 2021). I know there were fireworks incidents in our jurisdiction, with three injuries on July 4. Nationally, one of the most publicized fireworks-related tragedies was the loss of the Columbus Blue Jackets’ 24-year-old goalie, Matiss Kivlenieks, who was reportedly killed by a fireworks mortar round that tipped over and struck him in the chest. Kivlenieks’ death underscores that our safety message can be missed by anyone, regardless of age or social status. 

Was the excitement to get back to some sense of fun and normalcy so great that it overrode our many fireworks danger messages? Was anyone even listening?

Some of you, my colleagues, may point to all the work of the USFA and NFPA to make their media available for fire departments to use on social media, plus the pictographs to help reach those for whom English is not their first language. Yes, I get that, and we’ve used each of those platforms and options, but I’m not sure we are even still reaching the wider general public. And besides, when we are competing for attention amid the latest Hollywood celebrity tweets and countless cat videos, I think we lose.

The bottom line: We are facing a new collective indifference to CRR and safety messages.

During the pandemic, our department posted well over 125 COVID- and CRR-focused messages on social media, with many occurring after the release of the vaccine to help people schedule appointments. With the pandemic winding down, the narrative has switched to those individuals who have yet to be vaccinated, and how they might determine whether to get the vaccine. This could be a “tune-out” or part of the “message fatigue” to both those who have been vaccinated and those who have decided not to participate.

Our associates in law enforcement may be seeing it also in a change of driving habits. A large percentage of the public appears to still ignore speed limits – an issue that ramped up when the number of vehicles on the highways was greatly reduced during the height of COVID restrictions. This is not only occurring on interstates and highways, but also in neighborhood and business districts. For most, this manifests itself with a philosophy that a clear road ahead means no need to heed the speed limit. To others it means any car is an obstacle in their path, an invitation to pass cars doing only the posted speed limit. While law enforcement can react appropriately, doling out a ticket when if they see this reckless conduct, I’m sure that any traffic stop brings with it several concerns that they’d rather wish to avoid.

So, this phenomenon regarding the general lack of concern for safety doesn’t appear to be just about fire safety or the broader CRR questions; it appears to be a more general condition in the population perhaps more closely tied to COVID than we may think.

A more congenial possibility may be that people are now busier than ever, trying to make up for the lost time and revenue from the restrictions in place during the pandemic. Or, with the restrictions lifted, it may be a mindset to now “live life to the fullest while we can” or simply “to heck with everything or everyone else.”

Whatever the reason, it may be necessary for us to rethink our approach to CRR, especially to the NEW “hard to reach” populations. Have you seen this change in your area? If so, I welcome any suggestions on how we can address it.

Read next: CRR challenges and opportunities presented by COVID-19

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