The Consequences of Not Investing in Prevention
“One of the purest examples I know that shows exactly what happens when prevention funds are cut occurred in Edmonds, Washington about 30 years ago,” says Phil Schaenman, founder and president of TriData, a research firm headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. “They started a home visit program in which they hired senior women to go door-to-door to inspect homes for fire safety. Fires went down by an amazing two-thirds during the program, from the global advertising and awareness raised, not just from the visits themselves.” Areas of the community that had not yet been visited had about as much reduction as the areas that were visited. The global effect of the program in raising awareness and having citizens clean up homes in anticipation of visits was unexpected, he says, with a powerful impact coming from the program’s marketing and public education outreach that went along with the actual inspections.
“When funding was cut for this valuable program, the fires went right back up. It was as perfect a social engineering experiment as you could have. Apply prevention stimulus, fires down. Take away prevention stimulus, fires go up. This is an old example, but the same thing goes on all over the country today and it makes the problem of lacking public fire prevention efforts crystal clear. You need sustained public education—reminders of what to do and what not to do. Companies do not sell toothpaste or beer with one advertisement; they have to reinforce, pound in the message over and over, until you sing their jingle and remember the slogan, and then act on it.”
In 2012, Vision 20/20 conducted a survey of United States fire departments to gather data on local fire prevention service cuts. Overall, approximately 68 percent of respondents reported they had experienced fire prevention staff cuts. For those departments that provide a particular service, the order of cuts was:
1: public education (71%)
2: inspection services (64%)
3: plan review (40%)
4: fire investigation (31%)
For departments identifying as mostly career, approximately 68 percent reported fire prevention staff cuts. For those departments that provide a particular service, the order of cuts was:
1: public education (75%)
2: inspection services (62%)
3: plan review (40%)
4: fire investigation (39%)
For departments identifying as volunteer, approximately 31 percent reported fire prevention staff cuts. For those departments that provide a particular service, the order of cuts was:
1: public education (87%)
2: inspection services (39%)
3: fire investigation (25%)
4: plan review (21%)
This survey demonstrates that given a preference, public education services are sacrificed first in local fire departments with any level of career staffing, followed by inspection services. The difference in cuts grows wider as the dependence on career staffing decreases.
A complete report of the survey will be available at www.strategicfire.org upon release.
A Savvy Local Partnership Saves the Day in Layton
A growing population in Layton, Utah, quickly outpaced the Layton Fire Department’s ability to keep up with the need for fire safety education in the city’s 16 elementary schools. The department had used line firefighters to conduct educational events at the schools; but when an emergency call came in they would be deployed, often in the middle of a presentation. “It became too disruptive and ineffective for students, administrators and our personnel,” says Layton Fire Marshal Dean Hunt, explaining why the practice was finally stopped. “We had a $6,000 budget and we used it for our open house, but a one-day event each year wasn’t very effective.”
Layton went four years without the school education program, and Fire Marshal Hunt and his personnel began to notice an impact. “We didn’t have any data initially, but we knew we were getting more and more calls from schools for juvenile firesetting intervention,” he says. Especially revealing was that most of the calls were for junior high students, and that’s when he and his personnel realized that these were students who had missed out on fire safety education.
“We went through our records and discovered we had a 71 percent increase in intervention requests over that four-year period of no elementary school fire safety education,” he says. With no additional budget available and unable to reinstitute a citywide elementary school fire safety program led by the department, Fire Marshal Hunt and his staff realized they needed partners to help out. They teamed up with their local Fire Corps and established a program with volunteer students from two high schools. They created a program for the students to make fire safety presentations to the elementary schools. The fire department personnel still help, but the Fire Corps student teams do the heavy lifting, engaging student interest and earning school credits for their donated time.
“After four years of our high school Fire Corps program, we found there was a 72 percent decrease in intervention requests, reversing the entire increase and actually improving by one percent,” Fire Marshal Hunt says. But the impact on Layton residents wasn’t limited to students. “When I looked at our fire incidents over those eight years, fires overall dropped 18.5 percent (excluding vehicle fires) following reinstatement of the fire safety program. So the whole community benefited.” Fire Marshal Hunt attributes part of this to the take-home materials that are provided as part of the program. “The first year we did this I had parents calling me saying how impressed they were with the program and I’ve never had that happen before. Now the kids’ parents expect it!”