Author(s): Sharon Gamache. Published on May 1, 2008.

Outreach 2008 Header
Challenges of Urban Fire Prevention
NFPA launches a new fire prevention initiative.

NFPA Journal®, May/June 2008

The Public Education Division has launched new initiatives to reach a leading high-risk group in the United States, the low-income urban population. Building on programs targeting low-income communities in rural areas, in the Southeast, and in Native American communities, as well as children and older adults, NFPA’s Urban Fire Prevention Initiative addresses the challenges facing public safety educators in large cities.

These challenges include staffing smoke alarm installation programs, working in high-crime areas, and leveraging relationships with city-wide institutions serving pre-school and elementary school children and adults of all ages. Many communities must also provide culturally sensitive educational media to newcomers in their own languages and get community members to focus on fire safety when other issues may seem more pressing.

Building a strategy
In 2007, NFPA worked with the Louisville, Kentucky, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, fire departments to identify the causes of fire deaths and injuries among their high-risk populations and to gather information on the tools and techniques that successfully reach these audiences.

One challenge identified was the difficulty communities have reaching older adults, particularly those who might not come to a group presentation. Another was reaching people of all ages in low-income communities who may not be able to maintain their homes or install safety equipment. Yet another was reaching immigrant groups with fire-safety education. Learning about individual cultures and attitudes toward safety is often challenging, as is finding translators or interpreters.

Atop the list of strategies necessary to address these challenges was strong fire department leadership, with an emphasis on public education and prevention programs. Support from the International Association of Firefighters and other such associations was also a plus.

NFPA found that the most effective urban smoke alarm programs were those in which alarms were installed by firefighters, who also provided fire safety and escape information and helped identify hazards. The most effective programs were year-round programs, in which firefighters’ participation was part of their professional development.

Building a community
NFPA made the following recommendations for urban fire department education programs:

  1. Get the support of fire chiefs for fire- and life-safety education.
  2. Form an urban education task group in conjunction with Metro Chiefs.
  3. Integrate public education into firefighters’ duties. Include union representation.
  4. Open firehouses to the community.
  5. Provide smoke alarm installation programs.
  6. Make fire-safety education part of a child’s formal education.
  7. Work with community partners to reach older adults.
  8. Analyze numbers of deaths and fires in homes by census tract to identify areas to target.
  9. Appoint fire department specialists to reach out to the immigrant population.
  10. Use well-tested principles of working with community leaders in targeted areas.
  11. Partner with housing organizations to develop strategies to prevent home foreclosures and abandonment. Abandoned homes can attract illegal occupants who may heat or cook with makeshift equipment that can start fires.

NFPA is working with the Columbus, Ohio, Division of Fire to implement at least two of these recommendations. In addition, NFPA will organize a task force of urban public fire-safety educators to support each other on program strategies in major cities.

Sharon Gamache is director of high-risk outreach programs at NFPA’s Public Education Division.