Author(s): Lorraine Carli. Published on July 1, 2020.

Getting the Message

What Covid-19, quarantine, and close quarters show us about delivering effective safety messages

As we begin to transition to the “new normal” after several months of COVID-19, it’s a good time to take a closer look at the lessons we’ve learned and figure out how to work together to put those lessons to good use.

One observation from the pandemic response that has been particularly exciting to me is the public’s renewed interest in fire and life safety information. Those of us in fire prevention education face a complacent public that has taken safety for granted, fueled by a significant decrease in fires and fire deaths. For years we have struggled to gain traction with messaging while most people remain convinced a fire can’t happen to them. Studies suggest people see about 5,000 ads a day; studies have also shown that the public largely ignores messages related to fire safety.

Along came COVID-19, with people confined to their homes—a situation that created its share of fire safety issues. Adults worked from home and school-age children studied from home; anecdotal evidence suggests an uptick in fires related to overloaded electrical outlets as everyone powered their laptops, printers, and monitors. Similarly, people were forced to eat in, and anecdotally we saw more home fires associated with the increase in cooking. At the same time, quarantine meant many adults became their children’s teachers. People yearned for content that was educational, entertaining, and kept kids busy while the adults were on Zoom meetings for work.

All this created a great convergence for safety messaging. NFPA, along with many fire departments, began pushing out key information on preventing home fires and promoting activities that fit the home-schooling bill and kept kids entertained. The public responded by engaging with this content.

The top three posts on Sparky’s Facebook page during the first two months of quarantine illustrated that engagement. The top post was a video, “Firefighting’s Weird History and Fascinating Future,” which is filled with fun facts on firefighting. Next was a story of the North Charleston Fire Department in South Carolina reading “The Story of Sparky the Fire Dog.” The third was the free Sparky’s Birthday Surprise app, which saw the largest increase in downloads of any NFPA app during that time. An infographic from the Electrical Safety Foundation International on home electrical safety while working from home received attention on Twitter, while our home safety press release was the top press release on our press room.

What was different during this period was that people sought out safety information and took responsibility for their own safety in ways we don’t often see—it is typically more common for public educators to struggle with getting information into the hands of the public in a way that sparks action. Sheltering in place provided greater opportunity for us to do that. People wanted information to keep themselves and their families safe, but they also wanted information that would teach and entertain their kids. As the public turned to digital channels for news, information, and entertainment, they also found our safety messages, as we strategically targeted our outreach to where we knew audiences could find us.

The lessons embedded in this can help NFPA and the broader community of fire safety educators maintain this momentum. For the information to stick, it has to be fun, simple, and easy to obtain, and it must inspire action. It also has to be based on the current risks impacting communities. We need to use our own digital channels, and we need to work with others who can share and amplify those messages. We need to continue to work alongside first responders, who remain one of the most credible deliverers of safety information. All of our messages must urge the public to stay informed and for people to take responsibility for their own safety. 

Lorraine Carli is vice president of Outreach and Advocacy for NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler