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Rapid Response: Life safety and fire escape education for new immigrants

Here are actions for fire safety educators and their departments to reach new residents and share life safety messages


Delivering impactful fire and life safety education to reduce preventable fires to members of any community is a challenge for all fire departments.


What happened: The recent tragedy in Halifax, Nova Scotia where seven children in the same family lost their lives in a residential structure fire provides the latest evidence that fire doesn’t care who you are, where you came from or what troubles you’ve already had in your life. The family – a father, mother, and their seven children, ages 3-months- to 14-years-old – were immigrants who fled Syria and arrived in Canada in 2017.

Why it matters: If there’s one thing firefighters can agree upon regardless of their political affiliations or views is that fire is a true non-partisan entity. Fire cares nothing about one’s race, sex, religion, or national of origin. Or the language one speaks. Even though human behavior is the overwhelming cause of preventable fires around the globe fire cares nothing about how it started or who it harms.

Top takeaways on fire and life safety education

Delivering impactful fire and life safety education to reduce preventable fires to members of any community is a challenge for all fire departments. That challenge is exacerbated when new community members arrive from different countries and speak different languages. Here are four actions that fire safety educators and their departments should take to reach these new residents, share life safety messages, and engage leaders in these communities to spread fire prevention messages.

1. Update community risk reduction assessment

Make sure that your community risk reduction process includes finding where existing immigrant populations are in your community. This action has two purposes. First, to enable you to know where your fire and life safety education (FLSE) efforts face additional barriers from differences in language and culture. Second, is to seek out advocates and leaders within these new audiences, especially people who know the language and culture to help communicate FLSE messages.

Those advocates – whether formal or informal leaders – can be invaluable in helping you and your department to develop trust with your new residents. Trust is key to learning and preparedness.

2. Create community-specific FLSE messages

Created focused FLSE messages, marketing materials and media to reach immigrant groups using their language. For example, with Microsoft Word and Google Translate, even the smallest fire department can create flyers and handouts in just about any language. Create “just-in-time” training materials when the need arises.

The Minneapolis Fire Department offers its kitchen fire safety brochure in three languages:

3. Establish partnerships with other groups

Develop information sharing partnerships with your local school system, social service organizations, religious organizations, and non-governmental organizations that work with immigrants and refugee relocations so that you know when families are arriving your community. These new community members may or may not live in areas of your community with people who share their language or culture.

Be sure to guard those information sharing channels and relationships closely. Nothing will bring down your efforts to reduce preventable fires in those areas of your community like suspicions of your department’s intentions. Your purpose is fire and life safety. Nothing more and nothing less.

4. Keep the message consistent

The FLSE welcome wagon is the same for any audience, whether you are meeting with school-aged children, members of a civic group or employees of a small business. Don’t overwhelm them, but give them the fundamentals of residential fire safety. If you can make a home visit do these things:

  • Check the smoke alarms to make sure they’re operational.
  • Make sure the dwelling has the proper number of smoke alarms in in the proper locations.
  • Replace batteries and smoke alarms, as resources and department funding allow.
  • Create a Home Fire Escape Plan with the family by filling in together a ready-made form.
  • Explain what the plan is for and activate one of the smoke alarms to practice the plan with the family.
  • Tape the plan to the refrigerator.

A personal and hands-on visit from one of your department’s FLSE proponents is a great way to build trust in the fire department and reduce general mistrust of governmental authority figures that they might be used to in their former country.

Ask your advocates and other community partners about the best uniform or appearance to wear on these visits. For some communities a station uniform might be better received than a more formal uniform. Or just the opposite.

These actions can help you and your fire department to efficiently and effectively reach new members of your community with critical fire and life safety information. Real-time teaching of critical new behaviors such as checking smoke alarms and practicing a home fire escape plan can save lives.

Finally, network with your fire safety colleagues in other communities. What’s worked well for them to develop and distribute FLSE messages for new communities. I want to know your experiences and successes. Please share ideas, tips and resources in the comments.

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.