Author(s): Sharon Gamache. Published on May 1, 2012.

Just Ask
Using focus groups to determine a community’s fire safety needs

NFPA Journal, May/June 2012 

Sometimes, the best way to figure out how to reach a group of people with safety messages is to simply ask the group what works best.


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That’s what’s happening in El Paso, Texas — and the answers are sometimes surprising. For the past two years, as part of the Urban Fire Safety Project, NFPA’s Public Education Division has worked with the El Paso Fire Department on its public education and outreach programs for high-risk populations. The city is on the U.S./Mexico border, adjacent to Juarez, Mexico. To escape the drug-related violence in Juarez and other nearby smaller towns, many Mexicans have moved to El Paso, where residents of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity make up roughly 80 percent of the city’s population of 650,000. In addition, El Paso is home to Fort Bliss, a U.S. Army base that, since 2008, has added nearly 40,000 troops and their families, many of whom live off-base in rental property.

El Paso averaged about three fire deaths a year until 2010, when the number rose to 11. In the early part of 2011, eight more people died. Since the spring of 2011 and through the early months of this year, however, the city has had no fire deaths.

One of the fire department’s goals was to learn how best to reach targeted communities with fire safety education and outreach. To assist in this effort, we hired a market research group that conducted eight focus groups, four in English and four in Spanish. We learned that most of the participants had heard about the recent fire deaths on the television news but did not know that the number had been rising. We learned that they did not give much consideration to the possibility of a fire in their own homes; regardless of age or background, the primary concern of most participants was staying healthy so they could provide for their families. They had some fire safety knowledge and had taken some fire prevention steps in their homes, but very few had escape plans in place or had conducted a home fire drill. Some of the Spanish-speaking participants mentioned that the idea of a home fire escape plan had never been brought to their attention.

The focus group leader presented seven of the department’s existing or proposed outreach initiatives. Of the seven, the most popular were outreach to schools and older adults, and home visits for smoke alarm installations and home surveys. One surprise was how participants responded to potential Web-based safety initiatives; while most of them used the Internet or social media, they said that more traditional means such as television, local news programs, radio, newspapers, and fliers were still the best ways to reach them with any fire safety messages.

The El Paso Fire Department included what it learned in its strategic plan and launched several new outreach initiatives, which are described on the department’s website, For more information on this and other Urban Fire Safety Project initiatives, visit

You can also hear more on the topic at the upcoming NFPA Conference & Expo in Las Vegas. Lt. Carl Manning and Inspector John Concha of the El Paso Fire Department’s Community Risk Reduction Section will present more results of the focus groups in a session titled “Addressing the Challenges of Reaching Culturally Diverse High-Risk Populations in Large Metropolitan Areas” at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, June 13. For more on the conference, visit

Sharon Gamache is program director for NFPA’s Public Education Division.