Author(s): Fred Durso. Published on January 1, 2011.

The Right Message
What approaches are most effective for reaching kids with fire safety messages?

NFPA Journal®, January/February 2011 

By Fred Durso, Jr. 

It’s a weekday afternoon in July, and a small group of parents and children is watching cartoons at a research facility in Towson, Maryland. On a large screen at the front of the room, an orange, orb-shaped character named Orbie enters his kitchen and begins frying eggs. He touches the pan’s hot handle and screams, his red hand fluttering in the air. He contemplates applying either a stick of butter or cool water to his burn before choosing the water. The cartoon then shows Orbie, having made the right choice, happily playing video games with his friend.


NFPA’s varied approach to fire safety messaging
Positive fire-safety messages may work better than negative ones for kids ages 4–9, but NFPA’s overall approach in recent years has been to reach the intended audience with the message that works best.
Faces of Fire.

Key findings from the NFPA/Johns Hopkins study
Without parental mediation, younger children (ages 4 to 6) who saw the negative burn cartoon were half as likely to understand a safety message.

In the audience is Matthew Bussard, a four-year-old with brown hair and a cowlick. He wears a blue T-shirt and red shorts and is sprawled in a purple beanbag chair. His mother, Melinda, sits nearby on the floor, monitoring Matthew’s reaction to the cartoons. He perks up when another cartoon begins, this one featuring an orange cube-shaped character called Cubie who’s asleep in his bedroom. Moments later, black smoke descends from the ceiling in Cubie’s room and sets off a smoke alarm. Cubie jumps to his feet, saying, "Get up and go? Get low and go?" He correctly chooses the latter, crouching below the smoke as he slowly makes his way to the door. "That was a close one," says a firefighter who greets Cubie outside his home.

The cartoons end, the lights come up, and a research assistant hands Melinda a leaflet on fire safety, instructing her to use the information to talk about the cartoons with Matthew. Reading over the key points, Melinda is aware that the characters responded correctly to each scenario. Though the videos are mostly devoid of words, Matthew remembers the key takeaways. "What do you do when there’s a fire?" Melinda asks him while holding the leaflet. Matthew stands up and curls himself into a ball — his version of "get low and go," the catch phrase for getting out of a burning building if you have to go through smoke. He’s also able to reconstruct the burn and fire evacuation scenarios to a research assistant, who holds a chart with illustrated faces ranging from sad to happy.

"[Orbie] put his hand on the stove and got burned," Matthew tells the assistant.

"How good or bad was that?" the assistant asks. Matthew points to the saddest face on the chart.
"If a child burned his arm on the stove, how bad or good would it be for him to put his arm into a bucket of ice?" the assistant asks. Matthew points to the same face — again correct, since cool water is still the best option. He’s given crayons, a coloring book, and a plastic firefighter hat for his participation, and he runs to Melinda to show her his new toys.
Melinda and Matthew, along with hundreds of other kids and their parents, recently helped researchers determine the effectiveness of positive and negative outcomes within fire-safety messages for children ages 4–9, along with the role parents can play in clarifying and reinforcing those messages. These are the issues addressed in a study initiated by NFPA and conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Fire Prevention and Safety Grant Program provided more than $600,000 for the project.

The study’s report, "Understanding the Impact of Fire and Life Safety Messages on Children," concludes that children who viewed only "positive" cartoons, where characters took the correct action in various fire situations — such as Cubie putting his burned hand in cool water—were better at retaining the key safety message than children who viewed only "negative" cartoons where characters took the wrong action, as when Cubie applies butter to a burn. The study also indicates that children whose parents discussed the key messages had a better understanding of those correct behaviors. A summary of the report is available at

This analysis is critical, and long overdue, says Sharon Gamache, NFPA’s program director for high-risk outreach. "There hasn’t been new research done in the last 20 years or more on positive versus negative messaging in the fire field," she says. "The information from the study will help fire departments and organizations develop the right messages and how to go about using them." According to NFPA statistics, nearly 300 children ages 4–9 die annually from fire-related incidents in the U.S.

The parent role    
Determining the effectiveness of positive and negative outcomes — as well as a mix of both — in safety messaging for children was a 2010 goal set by NFPA’s Board of Directors. "In health education, we typically show what we want people to do rather than what not to do, but there hasn’t been good evidence to support either approach when it comes to teaching children fire-safety messages," says Andrea Gielen, professor and director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy and the study’s principal investigator.

Gielen was part of a three-person Johns Hopkins team that collaborated with members of NFPA’s Public Education Division to pinpoint specific behaviors to analyze in the study. An independent producer created the cartoons and live-action videos.

The study surveyed 641 parent-child teams from the Baltimore metropolitan area. Four-to-6-year-olds, along with a parent — almost all of the participating parents in the study were mothers — watched videos of Cubie and Orbie properly or improperly responding to burns and house fires, while older children and a parent viewed live-action videos of adolescents responding in a similar fashion. Participants in each study session watched videos with either positive or negative outcomes, not both, and the consequences of the characters’ actions are evident. Children were questioned by researchers on what they remembered from the videos, their perceptions of the characters’ actions, and their own probable responses to a house fire or a burn. Parents also completed a 65-question survey on the effectiveness of the videos’ messages. The survey also asked parents if they currently teach fire safety to their children.

Study results underscored the importance of parental mediation in helping children learn fire safety — and also revealed some notable reactions on the part of parents. Following the video viewings, some parents were asked to talk with their children about fire-safety techniques; some were asked to base their conversations on safety information contained in a handout, while others were simply asked to initiate a discussion with their children. A final group received no specific instruction from researchers. In one session observed by NFPA Journal, a research assistant left the room without instructing parents to talk with their children, and without providing instructive handouts. None of the parents initiated a discussion.

"The significant impact of parent mediation reinforces our conclusion that parents have an important role to play in helping young children interpret video messages," Gielen says. "In the case of the fire videos, for example, correct understanding of the safety messages jumped from roughly one-third to two-thirds when we compared children who received no parental mediation to those whose parents received the handout information on how to talk to their children." Teachers, pediatricians, and the media might be able to effectively assist parents in learning how to communicate with their children about fire safety, she adds.

A good example of the parental role is Eileen Roberts, a brown-haired, 37-year-old mother of three and a former schoolteacher. Roberts, along with her son, Ben, 4, attend another session the same day as Melinda and Matthew Bussard. Ben remains attentive while watching cartoons that depict only incorrect behaviors by the characters. Orbie places butter on a burn he gets from touching a pan’s hot handle, and Cubie exits his house during a fire by walking through the thick smoke; hacking profusely, he’s loaded into an ambulance and taken to the hospital. The cartoons end, the lights come up, and a research assistant gives Eileen a handout on fire safety, instructing her to use the information to talk about the cartoons with Ben. Reading over the key points, it’s apparent to Eileen that the characters reacted incorrectly in each scenario. Ben, wearing shorts and a tie-dyed T-shirt, crawls around under a nearby table, and Eileen wonders aloud if he absorbed the cartoons’ fire-safety messages.

She gets his attention, and reads him information about "get low and go." Ben stops squirming and appears interested.

"Why was Cubie coughing?" Eileen asks.

"He didn’t get low," Ben responds.

"That’s right!" Eileen says. "He should have gotten low, low, low."

Analyze this  
Some of the video’s messages were new information for Roberts, as well as for many other parents; some were unaware, for example, that butter on a burn could make the burn worse, and others didn’t know that cool water, not ice, was the ideal treatment. The study’s data on parental involvement could provide insight into how to best prepare parents for fire safety talks with their youngsters, Gamache says.

Melinda Bussard says she’ll take all the help she can get. She says she’s familiar with "stop, drop, and roll," but not much else when it comes to fire-safety messaging. "We haven’t really talked about [fire safety] with Matthew," she says. "I don’t think we’ve had a discussion other than telling him not to touch the stove or oven. When I was growing up, the fire prevention videos I remember were scary because they were live-action and would show a house engulfed in flames. It was nice that [the messages in] these cartoons were kinder, friendlier kid versions, since Matthew’s my little worrywart."

Like Bussard, the majority of the parents who participated in the study favored the cartoons that depicted correct behaviors, even if the incorrect ones were considered more potent. "When we asked the children to rate how bad the behaviors seen in the negative videos were, and how good the behaviors were in the positive videos, we found that the negative videos seemed to pack more negativity than the positively oriented videos packed positivity," says Rajiv Rimal, an associate professor with the Department of Health, Behavior, and Society at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a member of the research team. "What that signifies is that negative events in life stick out more in our heads than positive ones…If you’re developing negative messages, though, you have to be really careful of diluting that negative potency effect so people don’t go away with just the negative image in their heads." Rimal, who specializes in risk communication and perception, adds that negative messages can be highly effective at conveying safety information, provided it’s the right message for the right audience.

Gielen says she’s unsure if the negative messaging videos would have been more effective had they also been paired with the proper response to a house fire or burn. "Fear appeals" — the scare-tactics approach used to modify behaviors, such as the old anti-drug public-service television ad that showed an egg being cracked into a sizzling skillet, with the voiceover "this is your brain on drugs" — might also be less effective with young children than emphasizing parental mediation, Gielen adds.

Judy Comoletti, manager of NFPA’s Public Education Division, is also wary of fire-safety messaging that relies on depictions of incorrect behavior. "When you’re talking about providing negative information, you want to make sure that what you want to get across is getting across," she says. "When you’re using positive messaging, you know the message is there."
NFPA will share the study’s results with the public, particularly at the Conference & Expo in June. NFPA also plans to release a new guide to assist fire and life safety educators in creating materials using the strategies evaluated in the Johns Hopkins project, and will summarize existing knowledge about how to create and pretest educational tools.

Gielen says this study is just the start, and that additional research is needed on a range of messages and audiences. "There’s a great need for more research on a whole variety of injury-prevention messages for children as well as adults," she says. "Kids have received the least attention in this area. Without careful research on what messages are going to have the greatest impact, we may end up wasting scarce prevention resources."

Fred Durso, Jr., is staff writer for NFPA Journal.

Breaking Through the Clutter
NFPA’s varied approach to fire safety messaging 

Positive fire-safety messages may work better than negative ones for kids ages 4–9, but NFPA’s overall approach in recent years has been to reach the intended audience with the message that works best, whether the approach is strictly positive or a hybrid of negative and positive.

"People are constantly bombarded with messaging, so how do you break through all that clutter?" says Lorraine Carli, NFPA vice president of Communications. "What we’ve done over the past few years is try different approaches, and we haven’t been afraid to take chances. We’ve kept the message consistent but varied the way we deliver it."


DanDoofus: Aimed at adults, NFPA ends each cartoon with the correct fire safety message on preventing a fire or protecting yourself in the event of a fire.

That variation represents a shift in the organization’s approach to messaging, which has stressed "positive" approaches — depictions of only correct behaviors, for example, and avoiding certain kinds of consequences, such as depictions of people scarred or disfigured by fire — at the exclusion of almost all others. NFPA’s Dan Doofus public-service announcements, along with aspects of the new "Faces of Fire" campaign, part of the Fire Sprinkler Initiative, are both examples of recent NFPA messaging efforts that use so-called "negative" elements to convey those messages.

The Dan Doofus spots, produced by NFPA in 2008, are aimed at adults and combine correct and incorrect behaviors, with a humorous twist. The spots feature a blue-hued, short-statured cartoon character with bulging eyes and a bowtie — he looks like a cross between Mr. Magoo and the Na’vi people from the movie "Avatar" — who comically demonstrates the mishaps that can occur if you’re oblivious to fire safety. In one spot, Dan places a space heater next to his bed before going to sleep. A voiceover instructs Dan, cocooned in his comforter, to turn off the device, but he disregards the advice with a roll of the eyes. The space heater soon ignites the bed, which goes up with a poof! that sends Dan airborne. The bed turns to black ash as Dan thuds to the floor. A similar scene follows, only this time the space heater is a safe distance from the bed and is turned off. "Good job, Dan," says the voiceover. Carli says the intent with the Dan Doofus spots was to end each cartoon with the correct fire safety message on preventing a fire or protecting yourself in the event of a fire, and adds that the spots have been well received.

Audiences are also responding to Faces of Fire, which represents another facet of NFPA’s new and diversified messaging. Launched at the end of last year, the campaign has turned fire service members and burn survivors, some of whom have suffered scarring and disfigurement—negative outcomes of fire — into spokespersons for NFPA’s Fire Sprinkler Initiative, an effort to increase mandates for sprinklers in new one- and two-family homes. Videos, photographs, and testimony of fire loss and sprinkler successes help get the message across.

It’s the emotional impact of those personal appeals that makes them so effective, Carli says, and represents a new approach to home sprinkler messaging. "A lot of the material we’ve put out in support of sprinklers has been facts, figures, and research reports," Carli says. "All of that is necessary, but Faces of Fire is the very human side of the numbers. Together, they’re extremely powerful."

It’s that approach — sophisticated, well-crafted messaging that appeals to the head as well as the heart—that Carli says NFPA will continue to explore. "NFPA relies on so many people to carry its messages — fire service, educators, public safety advocates," Carli says. "We want to give them tools that resonate with them and with the people they’re trying to reach."

— Fred Durso, Jr.

Key findings from the NFPA/Johns Hopkins study

  • Without parental mediation, younger children (ages 4 to 6) who saw the negative burn cartoon were half as likely to understand a safety message compared to those who saw the positive burn cartoon.
  • The younger children’s correct understanding of fire and burn safety messages jumped from roughly one-third to two-thirds when comparing those who received no parental mediation to those who received guided mediation.
  • Younger children who indicated a likelihood of performing the correct safety behavior during a fire or burn incident jumped from two-thirds among those who saw negative cartoons to three-quarters among those who saw the positive videos.
  • Although half of the older children (ages 7 to 9) correctly identified the safe behavior when shown the negative fire and burn videos, this increased to almost 70 percent among those who saw the positive videos.
  • Parents rated the positive videos significantly higher than the negative videos for both the burn and fire videos on effectiveness in teaching the safety message, how well they thought their child understood the message, how likely they thought it was that their child would be able to do the right thing if confronted with the same situation, and how effective they thought the video would be to teach other children.
  • Parental mediation was most effective when parents were provided with discussion guidelines.