'Fireman Bob' teaches fire safety to N.C. school children

Charlotte Observer

Been to the Wal-Mart in University City lately? Chances are you've seen him working the exit door.

Have kids in school here? He's been a lunch monitor at Morehead, Nathaniel Alexander and University Meadows elementaries.

Bob Candina has a wide social circle for a guy who's lived here fewer than 10 years.

"My wife always says `If they put an APB out on you, they'd find you in five minutes,' " says Candina.

On this day, he's walking from the office to a classroom at University Meadows. Teachers here call him a "grandfather figure" and a "huge advocate for the boys."

The kids call him "Fireman Bob." Children standing in line in the hall spot the familiar 6-foot man and wave right away.

"How are ya doin' there," he says. "You behave, you got that?" He's on his way to check out a classroom, where he's going to give a short program on escaping house fires.

Candina did school presentations using this same EDITH (Exit Drills In The Home) program as a volunteer in Islip Terrace, N.Y. He figured he left them behind when he moved to Charlotte.

Then he read news reports here about children dying in fires. So he went to local schools and asked if he could do fire safety programs.

That connection later led to the lunch monitor jobs. The positions depend on the school budget (he started back at University Meadows on Monday), but he does the fire programs anyway.

"What I'm going to teach you today is very important," he tells the four fourth-grade classes sitting in Blair Mathis' and Pam Whitmire's shared classroom.

He figures if they hear it over and over, they'll tell their parents. He gets leaflets from the Charlotte Fire Department, including some in Spanish. This day, Wal-Mart, Eckerd's and McDonalds have donated candy and coupons to hand out.

Apparently, his talks work. The kids know most of the routine. They know about stop, drop and roll. They know to feel for a hot door with the back of their hand so their palm doesn't burn in case they need it to open a window.

They know to bug their parents to test the smoke alarms.

They know to shove their sheet in the door crack to keep out smoke.

"How many of you have bunk beds?" Most of the hands go up. Candina sighs. He hates bunk beds because the top sleeper is closer to smoke in a fire.

Then comes a guest they're sure to remember.

"I never want you to be scared when the fireman comes in to your room," says Candina. "He looks like a monster, but he's here to rescue you."

In walks Jerry Taylor, a firefighter with Charlotte Fire Station 35 just down Pavilion Boulevard. He's in full gear, including the rasp of the oxygen mask. He gets a full round of applause.

During the half hour, Candina also tells the story that keeps this 72-year-old motivated to give these lessons over and over.

A few years ago, he gave this talk at Nathaniel Alexander. Later that year, a first-grade girl remembered what he said and called 911 when her grandmother collapsed. The Fire Department arrived as she was going into cardiac arrest, and the grandma survived.

He tells them sometimes they'll be the one home with an adult who needs help. Or they'll be the one who hears the alarm sound and calls for help.

"You're going to have to be the little fireman," he says.

What about Bob?
*Family: *Married Marie in 1953, and has lived next door to her sister and brother-in-law since 1959. The couples moved to Charlotte in 1996; his daughter and her family live around the corner. His son also lives in Charlotte. "Talk about family unity," he jokes.

*Last job in N.Y.:* Funeral home office manager.

*Rescue: *Joined Islip Terrace FD (in N.Y.) in 1973, where he was a firefighter and captain of the rescue squad.

*Why University City?: *Picked N.C. for the nice weather. Planned on Chapel Hill, but stopped in Charlotte. Their real estate agent showed them the then-new Prescott Village. "I said to my brother-in-law, `This is it.' "

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