Author(s): Lisa Braxton. Published on January 6, 2014.

Outreach - January / February 2014

IN DECEMBER, I HAD A CHANCE TO TALK to Jeffrey McNeel, deputy chief/fire marshal for Beaumont Fire-Rescue in Beaumont, Texas. He was in Boston for NFPA’s two day Remembering When™: A Fire and Fall Prevention Program for Older Adults training conference, looking for direction on how to address a troubling trend in his community.

The research that he’d conducted on fall prevention among older citizens showed that his department, which takes an all hazards approach in responding to its 118,000 citizens, answers 10 times as many calls for public assists for falls and slips than for structure fires. Further, his analysis over a two-year period indicated that a call for a public assist for a fall with injuries was preceded by a call, if not multiple calls, for a public assist in which a resident wasn’t injured but needed to be lifted or repositioned after a fall. In one instance, the department responded to a location 26 times for non-emergency lift assists before receiving a call for a fall injury. What McNeel realized is that emergency personnel were responding to incidents but were not adequately addressing behaviors that often led to them.

“My heart is in prevention. This was an unacceptable hole in our prevention activities that had to be addressed,” McNeel told me at the conference. “We have been traditionally focused on getting the smoke alarms in and teaching children how to react to fire, but there’s so much more that affects a family’s safety. People can fall and have a life changing, life-ending injury. We have to become proactive.”

McNeel, along with more than 50 other participants from across the U.S. and Canada, came to Boston to learn how to reach older adults with the 16 key fire and fall prevention behaviors of the recently updated Remembering When program. The training included group presentations and home visits, and McNeel was particularly interested in a presentation by public health educator Andrea Vastis called “Health Behavior: From Theory to Practice.” Vastis explained the complex nature of ingrained behaviors, reinforcing her point by having participants pair off to discuss their own behavior changes and what motivated them. Vastis outlined strategies for working with older adults to help them recognize and change potentially dangerous behaviors, encouraging participants to practice patience and persistence throughout the process.

Vastis’ presentation was reinforced for McNeel and his peers in a session called “Conducting the Home Visit,” by Jessica Blackford-Cleeton, of the Illinois State Fire Marshal’s office, and Patricia Mieszala, NFPA trainer and lead public education advisor. They used props and clever pantomiming to dramatize the patience and sensitivity required to help an older adult embrace change.

The team concept was emphasized throughout the training. Participants were encouraged to form coalitions, to seek the support of their mayors, fire chiefs, civic and business leaders, and local media, and to keep in contact with each other throughout the yearlong commitment to the program.

“Sometimes in education we wonder, ‘Did we get the point across? Is there going to be behavioral change?’ ” McNeel told me — a familiar refrain from educators everywhere. “We have a wonderful partner with our home health agency. With the information we’ve been given here, we can truly educate others.”

For more on Remembering When, visit nfpa.org/rememberingwhen.

LISA BRAXTON is public education project manager at NFPA.