Practitioners in the field of public fire and life safety education will tell you that high school students are among the most difficult to reach. I’m hardly an expert, but their priorities are certainly not focused on safety–fire or otherwise. I’ll save the discussion about why they are challenging for another time and others with more expertise. But I want to draw attention to a small project in Oregon that may provide an example for others.
The concept that evolved at Reynolds High School in Oregon sprang from an interest of a local nonprofit (Change 4 Change) that worked with students in the school. It is fair to say that Reynolds has more than its share of students with real-life challenges—homelessness, drug issues, and violence (including a school shooter a couple of years ago), to name a few. This is not an affluent part of the country. Change 4 Change began by helping students in need make small purchases that could make a real difference in their lives—for example, calculators so students could finish math class and graduate, food when there was none, and fees for school outings required for graduation.
When these same students were asked (in a pilot test) to respond to questions about the importance of smoke alarms, one responded, “You mean for our car? Because that’s where we live.” You get the picture.
How, then, to engage any students in that kind of environment?
Change 4 Change, Reynolds High School, and the Gresham (OR) Fire Department partnered in a collaborative effort to experiment with a different educational approach. The high school Graphics teacher (Ms. Emily Hogue Barron) convinced one of her classes to use a safety education graphics tool created by the Vision 20/20 Project to design something specific for high-risk audiences in the area (https://materialsgenerator.strategicfire.org). The focus from the beginning was on lower income level apartment complexes, given their relative risk of fires and other emergencies. The students had to research fire problems in the area, agree on priorities (i.e., smoke alarms and kitchen fire safety), and produce something they believed would have appeal to their intended audience.
The graphic arts students developed and tested options for their material–a flyer intended for their identified audience. In addition, Don Porth, a retired public fire and life safety educator from Portland Fire and Rescue who lived nearby, assisted the students in designing a pre/post-test of the materials they developed. That was so they could provide some evidence that the materials would have the intended effect of raising knowledge levels.
Meanwhile, Change 4 Change (led by Ms. Gail Zea) worked with one of the students from the school to identify a high-risk rental property and to begin the process of working with them to distribute the selected educational materials for each apartment. The property was selected with the assistance of Captain Shawn Durham of the Gresham Fire Department, who understood the history of the complex and its nature. Many of the residents of the complex were Hispanic, so entry into the units would present potential language challenges as well as trust issues for anyone from “outside” who wanted to check for working smoke alarms. It’s not the kind of place just anyone solicits on a cold call.
Ms. Zea’s student–Emmanual Dominguez–was familiar with the property identified and arranged with the property management to distribute the graphics students’ flyers and to check smoke alarms in each unit that was willing to let them in. In all, 24 of 35 units were entered, and 24 units had working alarms. The other units were found to have no one at home. The units had one alarm placed in the hallway between the bedrooms, which was consistent with the law at the time of construction.
The doors that have been opened here are many. Some connection between the graphics students and the concept of safety has been built. Prior to the project, one of the students said the most important thing to him was “being cool.” The anecdotal feedback from them was very positive. And giving students a leadership role in design and development of safety education messages (with proper guidance) helped to unlock an interest level they previously did not have.
Change 4 Change was able to draw some support from a broader group of students to support their own cause by getting involved in something atypical for their basic mission. More students are now aware of how their small nonprofit helps students in need. And the positive reception by residents at the apartment complex helps both the school district and the fire department in establishing a more trusting relationship.
The concept of integrating public safety messages into other school activities is not new. Many over the years of my career have attempted to get fire safety into basic school curriculum for math or science classes. This is the first I’d heard of involving graphic arts students, giving them some control, and helping them to lead a safety cause. I certainly hope the idea lasts. Ms. Hogue Barron stated that she was very happy with the motivation of the students involved in the project.
In the end, like everything else we do in this field, we’ll see. But in one case, there is anecdotal evidence that high school students can be engaged in safety efforts in a creative way that just might save a life one day.
For more information about the project, contact Shawn Durham of Gresham Fire at [email protected]; Ms. Gail Zea at [email protected]; Ms. Emily Hogue at [email protected]; or Don Porth at [email protected].
Jim Crawford is project manager for Vision 20/20 and a retired fire marshal and deputy chief of the Vancouver (WA) Fire Department. He is a member of the NFPA technical committee on professional qualifications for fire marshals, a former member of the Standards Council for the NFPA, a fellow of the Institution of Fire Engineers, a life member of the IAFC, and past president of the International Fire Marshals Association. He is the author of Fire Prevention Organization and Management and has received the R. Wayne Powell Excellence in Fire Prevention Award, the Dr. Anne Phillips award for leadership in fire and life safety education from the Congressional Fire Services Institute and the International Fire Service Training Association, the Fire Protection Person of the Year from the Society of Fire Protection Engineers, and the Percy Bugby Award from the International Fire Marshals Association.