Author(s): Lisa Braxton. Published on July 1, 2013.

Outreach - July/August 2013

I GREW UP IN Bridgeport, Connecticut, which was once an industrial and financial force in New England. Over the past several decades, though, Bridgeport has experienced a dramatic decline in its manufacturing industries and a steady slide in population. I’ve seen for myself how the city’s tenuous economic footing has resulted in struggles to provide residents with adequate public protection, including fire service. It’s a story that’s being repeated in cities and towns—not just around New England but across the country.

As one of those cities, Springfield, Massachusetts, is working to rebuild its devastated economy, and its fire department faces a host of challenges. Because of significant budget cuts since 2003, the Springfield Fire Department has shuttered a fire station, closed down two companies, and laid off more than 50 firefighters. The department now runs three firefighters per engine instead of four.

During this same period, however, the city’s immigrant population has mushroomed. English is spoken as a second language in 34 percent of Springfield’s households, compared with 21 percent of households statewide. The growing population of Somali, Russian, Nepali, Vietnamese, and Latino immigrants generates a large number of fire calls, which are often the result of unattended cooking or unsafe cooking practices.

David Rivera, Springfield’s fire marshal, told me that some emergency responses are to fires that started when recent immigrants tried to cook meals by burning or heating charcoal briquettes on the electric stoves in their apartments. “We needed a way to communicate with them effectively about fire prevention,” he said, “and how to respond if a fire should happen in their home.”

The department didn’t have the funding to provide targeted public education to these high-risk groups, which also include adults ages 65 and up, so fire officials applied for NFPA’s Rolf H. Jensen Memorial Public Education Grant. Each year, NFPA awards $5,000 to a local fire department to support a community-wide fire and life safety education program or campaign. The Springfield Fire Department was awarded this year’s grant for its “Multi-Language Public Education Fire Safety Initiative,” which will conduct fire safety presentations primarily at the city’s various cultural and community centers.

A key component of this initiative is providing public education to immigrants in their native languages. Fire department officials contacted the interpreter and translation services department at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, which will translate at no cost messaging on planning for, and escaping from, fire; cooking safety; and other topics.

The initiative’s kickoff event was the Springfield Vietnamese American Civic Association Health Fair in April. The fire department hosted a table along side other health and safety agencies. Department personnel created fire safety poster boards in Vietnamese and provided handouts of NFPA’s easy-to-read fire safety materials for distribution. Certified interpreters discussed fire safety with the public.

The department will evaluate the program in three parts: a comparison of emergency response numbers before and after the program’s implementation, instructor evaluations, and a 10-question survey in which program attendees respond to questions about fire hazards in their homes. Fire department officials hope that 80 percent of the attendees will pass the survey.

“The community has been very receptive,” Fire Marshal Rivera told me. “We hope with this and other events that we’ll see a drop in dangerous fire behavior and calls to the fire department.”

Lisa Braxton is project manager for NFPA’s Public Education Division.