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‘Keep the Wreath Red’: A CRR program for the holidays

The simple act of changing bulb colors on station wreaths engages citizens in fire safety messages

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As part of the “Keep the Wreath Red” campaign, each fire station displays a holiday wreath, large enough to be seen by passersby or vehicle traffic, and decorated in all red holiday lights. Then for every fire, one white light replaces a red light on the wreath.

Photo/Robert Rielage

While October was Fire Safety Month, inclusive of Fire Prevention Week, we are now approaching the holidays, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, with all of their special fire hazards. From fires sparked by holiday decorations to kitchen fires from an overloaded appliance, it’s the time of year for increased fire calls – and an increase in the number of fire deaths and injuries, and the heartbreak when they involve children.

NFPA fire statistics confirm that during the winter months – and particularly the holiday season – the number of structure fires increases. So while trying to make as much time for family and friends during the holidays, how can you – the chief, community risk manager, prevention officer or firefighter – maintain a comprehensive fire safety awareness and community risk reduction (CRR) program in your response area without investing more of your time?

A visual reminder of fire danger

Now in its fifth year, our department has duplicated a program entitled “Keep the Wreath Red,” originated in 1954 by the Naperville (Illinois) Fire Department and then adopted in 1980 by the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association. The program has yielded outstanding community results in our area. With a bit of preparation, “Keep the Wreath Red” can work whether your department is large or small, career, volunteer or a combination of both.

The concept is simple, as most fire departments allow some degree of holiday decorations displayed at their stations. With “Keep the Wreath Red,” each fire station displays a holiday wreath, large enough to be seen by passersby or vehicle traffic, and decorated in all red holiday lights. The lighted wreath is festive yet helps celebrate all of the diversity in your community during the holiday season – Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa.

Beginning just before Thanksgiving, use media outlets to inform the public that for every structure fire – or perhaps in smaller communities, it could be any type of fire during the holidays – one white light replaces a red light on the wreath at their neighborhood fire station. This piques the community’s interest so that as citizens pass the station, they can see the wreath change color with each additional fire.

The initial press release should also briefly discuss the leading causes of holiday fires: cooking, candles, short circuits in decorative lights, combustible holiday decorations as well as fires in chimneys or caused by home-heating appliances, including electric or kerosene space heaters.

There are additional components to follow on a weekly basis, if you choose, such as reminding residents to have working smoke detectors on every level of their home as well as a planned and practiced exit drill in the home with a designated family meeting place.

What we’ve found is that our residents – especially those who routinely pass their neighborhood fire station, our Northgate Station Pubic Education location or our Fire Headquarters building – will glance over to see if any of the red light bulbs have changed to white. That action, even if just a fraction of second, subconsciously prompts a reminder to our citizens of our holiday fire safety messages. It’s a subtle reminder that fires are always possible during the holidays, and that you and your department will be there if they need you.

Another option, depending on your time, is sharing a brief weekly press release with the media or even just a social media post updating the public on the types and cause of fires that you’ve experienced during the previous week, as well as the number of bulbs that have been changed. If there have not been any fires, then the message sent can be one of congratulations to your citizens for their safety awareness that has continued to help “Keep the Wreath Red” during the holidays.

More than just a decoration – a message

A campaign like “Keep the Wreath Red” is just one way to help maintain a holiday fire safety presence with your residents, but you might be surprised how attentive they will become to your fire safety message once they find out that the wreath is more than just a holiday decoration on the station.

Stay safe!

Editor’s Note: What CRR programs does your department use to spread the fire safety message at the holidays? Share your story at editor@firerescue1.com.

Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers – USA Branch. He has served as a subject-matter expert, program coordinator and evaluator, and representative working with national-level organizations, such as FEMA, the USFA and the National Fire Academy. Rielage served as a committee member for NFPA 1250 and NFPA 1201. In 2019, he received the Ohio Fire Service Distinguished Service Award. Rielage is currently working on two books – “On Fire Service Leadership” and “A Practical Guide for Families Dealing with a Fire or Police LODD.” Connect with Rielage via email.

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