Fire Safety in the Melting Pot
NFPA Journal, May/June 2011
I grew up in the fifties and sixties in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Back then, the city’s population was fewer than 80,000, and there wasn’t much diversity among its citizens.
Today, Sioux Falls’ roughly 155,000 inhabitants are much more racially and ethnic diverse. New census data shows that minorities make up 15 percent of the population, and a recent story in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader reports that there are students from 51 language backgrounds in the local school district. Many of the newcomers are refugees who arrived in the United States from countries as varied as Cambodia and Sudan, often with little preparation for their immersion in American culture. Many do not speak English.
This kind of demographic shift poses particular challenges to fire safety professionals. In addition to language barriers, these new citizens may have cultural issues related to fire that safety professionals are unaware of. Larry Gray, public information officer for the fire department in Cleveland, Ohio, says that the city’s diverse population includes a growing number of residents from Somalia who did not use stoves in their home country, and that fires and injuries have occurred among people unfamiliar with their use.
Cooking isn’t the only problem. In December 2008, seven immigrants from Liberia, including three children, died in a fire in Philadelphia, the result of a kerosene heater that exploded when it was accidentally fueled with gasoline. In February, another space heater fire in Philadelphia began when its electric cord, which had furniture placed on it, frayed and sparked. Rescue was delayed because members of the family, which was Cambodian, did not call the fire department and tried to fight the blaze themselves. Two children died, and at least seven other members of the household were injured, four of them children.
"Our biggest challenges in reaching immigrants are finding the pockets where they live and getting them to trust firefighters or people in uniform," says Gray. "It is difficult to break the mistrust. We found that we needed to befriend a leader in the community to build trust."
Battalion Chief Derrick Sawyer, head of the Fire Prevention Division for the Philadelphia Fire Department, says another strategy is to partner with cultural associations and to reach people at church. "We worked with the Liberian community by giving presentations on smoke alarms and fire prevention at their churches," he says. The department also partnered with the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia, and talked with children at the school attended by the victims of the February fire.
While some communities, including Sioux Falls, address the challenge by producing their own home fire safety materials in multiple languages, many fire departments use NFPA’s easy-to-read prevention brochures, which are available in an array of languages and feature illustrations of people from a variety of cultures. The Cleveland Fire Department, which had an exhibit at a recent News Year’s celebration in the Vietnamese community, included NFPA’s fire safety handouts — in Vietnamese — on its table. "We ran out of copies and had to go print more," says Gray.
To download NFPA’s brochure, visit nfpa.org/MultipleLanguagesHandouts.
Sharon Gamache is Program Director of NFPA’s High-Risk Outreach Programs in the Public Education Division.