Author(s): Lorraine Carli. Published on November 1, 2016.

What about the other 51?

Why a weeklong focus on fire prevention needs to expand to a yearlong effort


WE JUST COMPLETED THE 2016 OBSERVANCE OF Fire Prevention Week, which we’ve officially done each October since 1922. NFPA is grateful to the fire departments, teachers, and other safety advocates around the country who use this opportunity to remind their communities that fire is still a problem and that most fires can be prevented by taking a few simple steps. While we can’t track the fires that don’t happen, the efforts undertaken during Fire Prevention Week undoubtedly save lives, and we hear anecdotal tales of children who alert their families of a fire shortly after learning the lesson at school.

As far-reaching an effort as this is, it is not enough. The reality is that people have become fairly complacent about fire, and if they don’t see a home burning in their neighborhood, they don’t think they are at risk. Yet headlines continue to remind us that the threat is painfully real. A sad example occurred in September, when nine people, including six children, died in a home fire in Memphis, Tennessee. Fire officials believe it was the deadliest fire in their state since the 1920s. The day after the fire, officials canvassed the neighborhood sharing key messages and installing smoke alarms. Reacting to a tragedy is a necessary step, but other approaches are also needed.

I learned of one such effort when I visited Alabama this summer and heard Tuscaloosa Fire & Rescue Chief Alan Martin describe Project F.I.R.E.—the acronym stands for Fire and Injury Reduction Education—a proactive community risk reduction program. The Tuscaloosa department launched the program in 2005 after a two-year-old boy died in a fire that occurred in an older home with no smoke alarms.

Looking at fire history data, Tuscaloosa Fire & Rescue learned that many of the city’s fires were occurring in the same areas of town. They launched Project F.I.R.E to target those high-risk neighborhoods, in large part by establishing ongoing relationships with four local elementary schools. Each school year, students at the schools are taught eight lessons developed and delivered by the fire department that cover various aspects of fire safety. The idea is that a yearlong effort is more likely to change behavior than a weeklong, once-a-year campaign.

The program is working. From 2006 to 2013, Tuscaloosa saw a 28 percent reduction in fire incidents. In 2009 and 2010, the city had no fire deaths in the neighborhoods that the program targeted and no fire deaths in all of Tuscaloosa in 2011, 2012, and 2013. The program has had a side benefit of further integrating the fire department into the community. Tuscaloosa Fire & Rescue now has well-established relationships with teachers; the fire service is seen as a valuable partner for the schools, and firefighters are regarded as positive role models for students.

Chief Martin said there are a few key factors that led to a culture change in Tuscaloosa, all of which can be replicated elsewhere. Success, he said, depends on the fire chief making prevention a priority. It also requires an understanding that fire and life safety is everyone’s responsibility. It has to be a focus every day of the year.

Alabama currently has the third-highest number of annual fire deaths in the country, but it’s working to change that. There is now a statewide campaign underway called “Turn Your Attention to Fire Prevention,” which focuses on the same everyday prevention philosophy as promoted by Project F.I.R.E. We hope they are successful. NFPA and others will be watching these efforts in Alabama closely to see what lessons can be learned for carrying prevention messaging beyond just a single week each year.

LORRAINE CARLI is vice president of outreach and advocacy for NFPA.