Three key elements for invigorating public education programs
This is a special post from Bobby Clark
Fire prevention is the front line offensive assault unit of firefighting. The officers who fill these ranks are proactive, stubborn, righteous and creative; they face almost hopeless odds, but they persevere. They must maintain vigilant awareness in an environment that would overwhelm the average person. That is what makes them and this profession unique. Unfortunately, complacency has infested certain areas of fire prevention, specifically public education.
Public education, it seems, has morphed from a vibrant, proactive concept into a seldom-thought-about item, something that’s included in the department’s mission statement, but merely to check a box. But here’s the thing: Public education is the most important program a department can invest in. The mission of every department is life safety and property conservation, and the only way to truly accomplish that is through a regular, creative, robust public education program.
Don’t get me wrong; time is, as we all know, our worst enemy, and I’m by no means suggesting that other programs and responsibilities should suffer a loss in order to fulfill the required commitment of public education. I am simply proposing that we do not allow public education to suffer a loss of commitment and focus for the demands of the other.
Analyze your program and ask yourself one simple question. If I were the public, would I be interested and engaged in this program? If you can honestly answer yes, then you are truly a leader in the profession. If not, then it’s time to remedy it.
Envisioning a Successful Program
So what does a successful public education program look like? I’m sure there are thousands of ways to answer that question, but let’s break it down by first analyzing where we are at now.
Some departments’ idea of public education is a once-a-year, week-long, unengaged invasion of every public school that will allow them in the doors, where they shower students with goody bags of pamphlets and stickers that, if they even make it home, don’t last three days before they’re discarded.
Other departments are bit more engaging. They give demonstrations given by the truck and engine companies—which we know the kids absolutely love—but still only once a year, or twice at best. Other departments run a much more engaging program. They’re in the schools three or four times a year and maintain a presence throughout the residential areas of their city or town—not just when there’s a fire, but regularly, with smiles and waves to the people they’re sworn to protect. These are perhaps the extremes of the spectrum, but I’m sure your department falls somewhere in the mix.
Now that we have a grasp on where we are at, let’s look at where we need to be and how to get there. A successful program must be three things: regular, interesting or engaging, and tailored. Let’s look at each of those a bit more.
We have to get away from the once-a-year-in-October programs that are just as easily forgotten as they were prepared for. The good program is built on a monthly, managed schedule. “Who has time for that?” We all do. I’m not saying you need to be in the schools giving demonstrations or giving lectures every month. Simply maintain some kind of presence that changes monthly. The bottom line: Whatever you do, make it a regular part of your mission.
A regularly changing presence will improve any program, but ensuring that it’s interesting or engaging will provide optimal results. One idea is a monthly posting. Every school or business has a bulletin board that you could request a small portion of. Provide engaging stories or posters that will grab the attention of the passer-by. For schools, both elementary and middle, I have developed a “comic poster” with a new fire prevention/education story every month (see photo). Kids love comics! So do adults, for that matter.
To engage your public, you must know your public. Pamphlets, stickers, and pencils work for some, but they definitely don’t work for all. You must tailor your program to fit the needs and interests of the audience. The message doesn’t change, but the method by which you deliver it does.
This is where being creative comes in to play. You are, or should already be, well known in your public. The opposite should be true as well; you should know your public well enough to know what medium would reach them best. The medium you use in schools will not be the same that you use in small businesses, and that will not be the same as you use in grocery stores or malls.
Sound like a lot of work? As I stated in the beginning of this article, your average person cannot be a successful fire prevention officer. It takes a certain temperament to endure the demanding nature of this profession.
It Comes Down to You
The fire prevention profession as we know it needs a shot of adrenalin. We must raise the bar of expectation by which we judge our public education programs. By doing this, we will not only improve the public opinion and interest in the fire service, but save lives as well. Ultimately, it comes down to you the fire prevention officer: your priorities and the commitment you give to your public education program.
If you’re interested in acquiring monthly comic posters for your program, please visit www.facebook.com/ritbyclark.
Bobby Clark, a husband and father of five is currently a Civilian Firefighter/Paramedic for the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina. He currently serves as a member of the Health and Wellness Task Force for the United States Navy and Marine Corps Civilian Fire and Emergency Services. Being an experienced and certified Personal Trainer and Nutrition Specialist, he is also holds the billet of Health and Fitness Coordinator for his department. In his Fire and Emergency service career, thus far, Bobby has been awarded for life saving efforts as well as recognized as the 2008 Firefighter of the Year.
Bobby served eight years on active duty in the United States Marine Corps. He has held various positions as a Marine Crash Crew Firefighter, from ARFF Driver Operator, Section Leader, to Hazardous Materials/Decontamination Officer. During his service in the Marine Corps, Bobby received various medals and awards for meritorious performance of duty and achievements.
Bobby is the author of two published titles, one being a fitness book titled Unleash the Machine; A Marine’s Guide to Elite Fitness, the second being a children’s book titled The Book of Life