Author(s): Lorraine Carli. Published on November 1, 2017.

Moving Safety Forward

A look back at three decades of progress in public education—and a reminder of the challenges we continue to face

As head of NFPA’s public education efforts for more than three decades, Judy Comoletti has witnessed and overseen a lot of great progress. In 1981, the year she started working at NFPA, there were more than 700,000 home structure fires in the United States, which resulted in 5,400 fire deaths. By 2015, the most recent statistical year, the number of home structure fires had fallen to about 365,000, resulting in 2,560 deaths. While many factors are credited with that huge drop, public education has been a key driver.

Judy retired at the end of August after more than 36 years at NFPA. Before she left, I chatted with her about how public safety education has improved over that time and what challenges still lie ahead.

Perhaps the biggest change, she told me, has been the evolution of safety messaging, especially how fire safety education is delivered to the public. Judy recalled making brochures in the 1980s by physically cutting out images and pasting them onto paper, which she then copied and mailed to fire departments. Fire departments were the main deliverer of fire safety messages back then, but there was really no way to know if the departments were actually using the material Judy sent. Today, digital platforms give the public and fire departments all over the world direct and instant access to NFPA’s information. There are Sparky the Fire Dog® apps geared toward children that have been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times by teachers, parents, and children. Our social media platforms bring important messaging instantly to the public. We are also able to track how many people see and use these messages. It’s a far cry from mailing out homemade flyers.

Another positive change over the last three decades has been a dramatic increase in the number of resources NFPA has available to educate communities about fire safety. We now have a team of regional public education specialists that visits fire departments across the country to help them use NFPA materials to develop local programs that best meet the needs of their communities. Under Judy’s direction, NFPA has grown and honed its annual Fire Prevention Week activities for fire safety educators and classroom teachers, and has fostered a network of fire service public educators from across the country. We have brought Sparky to more people in more ways than ever before, and have grown and strengthened programs like NFPA’s “Learn Not to Burn®,” which teaches children fire safety, as well as “Remembering When™ ,” which educates seniors and the elderly on fire safety.

Despite this progress, the job of public education is not done. In fact, we need to work harder. New construction methods and modern home furnishings have resulted in home fires that are more dangerous and burn faster today than at any point in history. Most home fire deaths today still occur in residences with no working smoke alarms. With the number of fires down, the public pays less attention to fire safety today than it did in the 1980s and apathy is a concern. With the huge amount of information people in our society are bombarded with on a daily basis, we struggle to break through the clutter.

While we continue and as we double down on these efforts, we will miss Judy. She has made a tremendous personal contribution to public education, moving safety forward through her tireless devotion to overseeing the development of the right messages, her creative and collaborative approach to developing new and innovative initiatives, and her steadfast insistence on quality. NFPA was fortunate to have had Judy for so long.

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