The CRR challenge: New generations require new approaches

Three examples underscore that we’re missing the mark with our current fire prevention strategies


The month of October brings Fire Prevention Week, and most of us will spend a modest amount of time promoting fire and life safety to our citizens. We stress important concepts like having working smoke detectors on every level of a residence and practicing exit drills in the home, as well as campaigns like Close Before You Doze and even services like Smart 911, which gives firefighters a heads up about everything from the location of children’s bedrooms or whether there are pets on the premises.

But just this week, I had three different events that reminded me that despite our best intent, by and large we are failing to get the general public to realize that all of our efforts are geared toward having the public take some action on their own – and the statistics indicate that we are failing to get their response.

Natural disaster preparation

The NFPA’s Fire Prevention Week them for 2019 – “Not Every Hero Wears a Cape, Plan and Practice Your Escape” – was designed to remind individuals and families of their responsibility to take action to plan and practice exit drills, have two ways out of every room, and in doing so “to be your own hero.” (Photo/NFPA)
The NFPA’s Fire Prevention Week them for 2019 – “Not Every Hero Wears a Cape, Plan and Practice Your Escape” – was designed to remind individuals and families of their responsibility to take action to plan and practice exit drills, have two ways out of every room, and in doing so “to be your own hero.” (Photo/NFPA)

The first of these epiphanies occurred while attending a meeting of our local Emergency Management/Homeland Security group. Nick Crossley, our Hamilton County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) director, indicated that citizens today are less prepared individually or collectively as a family to handle an emergency or disaster than those of 30 years ago – this despite the amount of advanced warning that technology has given us in alerting people of potential dangers. This includes responses to a natural disaster or a hazmat or terrorist incident. The number of people prepared to take action and care of themselves for the FEMA-recommended 72 hours are few and far between.

Less time to escape

The second such thought that our safety message(s) are falling to evoke action from our citizens came from an article in the latest edition of the NFPA Journal written by Lorraine Carli titled “Great Escapes.” Carli first indicated that the most recent NFPA statistics show that home fire deaths in the United States have shown a 6% upward climb in the 5-year period from 2013 to 2017, and the trend appears to have continued in 2018.

She emphasized that modern lightweight residential construction, coupled with synthetic highly combustible furnishings, are giving occupants less time, as little as 2 minutes, to become aware, react and safely exit a residential fire – far faster than even the best or closest fire units can arrive on the scene to affect rescues.

While these elements of modern living are not new to us, why – especially in newly constructed homes where most jurisdictions mandate smoke detectors – are we losing people?

The NFPA’s Fire Prevention Week them for 2019 – “Not Every Hero Wears a Cape, Plan and Practice Your Escape” – was designed to remind individuals and families of their responsibility to take action to plan and practice exit drills, have two ways out of every room, and in doing so “to be your own hero.” Is it possible that this was too subtle a message? That we need somehow to better capture the attention of the public?

Smoke detector failures

My final example came from looking over our department’s fire reports for five serious residential fires in the month of September. Of the five, four had no working smoke detectors. Even more concerning: Of the 20 incidents dispatched as structure fires, only 25% reported that they had been alerted by their smoke detectors.

That statistic nailed me as about as hard as a linebacker picking me up and not so gingerly setting me on end on a run play. Why? Because in the past 5 years, with the support of the local chapter of the American Red Cross, we’ve installed over 600 smoke detectors upon request and held five “Smoke Detector Blitz” events in separate neighborhoods where serious fires had occurred. Granted our housing stock averages about 35 to 40 years old with both some older homes that were once farmhouses as well as some of the most modern and expensive in any area. So what is it that we are missing?

Changing the CRR focus

Could it be that across the entire socio-economic spectrum, people are too busy with their social lives or too busy with the latest technological advances to take the time to assess what they need to protect their family, their home and themselves from fire? Do they have a false sense that if their home were to catch fire tonight or are faced with an impending natural disaster, they’d always have time to react, orient themselves with what to do and escape the peril? And if not, surely firefighters will be on the scene quickly enough to rescue them – after all it’s what we are trained to do, right?

So the question becomes, how in the realm of community risk reduction (CRR), whether in fire safety or disaster preparedness, do we educate the public that everything we do in prevention and preparedness requires several action steps that only they can perform – even if just as simple as picking up their cell phone or sending an email requesting smoke detectors to be installed in their home?

By no means will I or our department stop our CRR efforts, but the approach has changed. It used to be that we focused on those “hard to reach” populations, identified by a disability or advanced age. But now I’m more convinced that it has become a generational issue that will take a new concept of outreach to overcome what may be a younger population that exhibits apathy or indifference toward the need for fire safety and disaster preparedness.

Whatever the issues, we should never stop our search for the answers. Otherwise, all we will be able to do is stand back and watch the statistics continue to climb.

Stay safe!

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