Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on March 1, 2018.

This is Safety

How NBC’s tear-jerker series “This Is Us” sparked a national conversation on fire and life safety—and slow cookers


Fans of the New England Patriots weren’t the only ones mourning on the Monday after the Super Bowl. Many more people around the country were enduring sorrow of their own after one of the main characters in the hit NBC television series “This Is Us” died in an episode that aired after the big game.


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The timeline of the show is punctuated with flashbacks, and earlier episodes had hinted that Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia), the beloved TV father of three, died in a house fire. Close, but not quite—viewers learned in the February 4 episode that Jack actually dies of a heart attack shortly after a house fire, the result of inhaling a large quantity of smoke while rescuing the family dog.

Cue the tears, which is what “This Is Us” has been spectacularly successful at doing for two seasons—the Washington Post described the show as “a cathartic cry-fest about a family’s complex relationships.” It’s also an uncommon example of a popular-culture phenomenon that intersects with fire and life safety and provides organizations like NFPA with opportunities to communicate important safety messages. Prior to the big reveal, “This Is Us” brought some of those messages, including the need to replace smoke alarm batteries and the danger of going back into a burning building, into the national spotlight. But the show also sparked an at times comical debate over slow cookers—electrical cooking appliances that allow for the unattended, hours-long cooking of dishes like pot roast and chili.

On more than one occasion, NFPA was able to bring its expertise to the nationwide conversation over Jack’s demise. “‘This is Us’ showed viewers how characters’ actions and oversights led to tragedy and provides a powerful opportunity to talk about what can be done to prevent fire fatalities in real life,” said Lorraine Carli, NFPA’s vice president of Outreach and Advocacy, in a press release issued the day after Jack’s death was aired. “Getting outside and staying out once you’ve escaped a burning building is among the most critical takeaways from the show. If a person or pet is still trapped inside, tell the firefighters where you think that person might be. Never ever go back inside a burning building.”

Necessary discussion

In an episode of “This Is Us” that aired in mid-January, more than 10 million viewers learned that Jack’s death occurred shortly after he and his wife forgot to replace the batteries in one of their home’s smoke alarms. The foreshadowing hit on a message that NFPA has promoted for decades, and in a blog post the organization lauded the show’s decision to highlight the importance of replacing smoke alarm batteries.

Viewers and other fire safety experts agreed. “As someone who lived through a house fire, I can say that our smoke detectors notified all six of us plus three pets to get out safely,” one woman wrote on Facebook. “Accidents happen and having a working interconnected system saved our lives.”

“America loves the Pearson family, and watching them go through this tragedy because of [the] lack of working smoke alarms and a home fire escape plan should be a wakeup call to many,” Summer Mahr, a public educator in Florida, wrote in response to the NFPA blog. “It truly showed what not to do in a fire. … I am going to look for a video clip of this episode to share at my future fire safety presentations to stress the importance of having a home fire escape plan.”

According to NFPA, from 2009 to 2013, 38 percent of home fire deaths occurred when no smoke alarms were present, and the death rate per 100 reported home fires was more than twice as high in homes without working smoke alarms than those with them. All of NFPA’s statistics and resources on smoke alarms, including a video, tip sheet, research report, and more, can be found online.

In the February 4 episode, Jack awakes to his home ablaze. He hurriedly leads his family outside but reenters the home to rescue the dog—presumably, it was this final venture into the smoke and flames that stressed Jack’s heart to the point of cardiac arrest hours later. Again, NFPA lauded the show’s decision to convey the message that it’s never safe to reenter a burning home, but also noted how unlikely it would be for somebody to go back into a home that’s fully engulfed in flames and escape, with dog in hand, with only second-degree burns.

The cause of the fire has been at the center of a curious conversation that’s included panicked calls to NFPA and a well-known manufacturer’s decision to launch a public relations campaign. In between the episodes showing Jack and his wife forgetting smoke alarm batteries and Jack charging back into the burning home for the dog, it’s revealed that the fire was started by an old and faulty slow cooker. NFPA, in the same blog post praising the show’s smoke alarm messaging, said the show “missed the mark” on the slow cooker plotline. Although cooking is the leading cause of home fires in the United States, the number of these fires caused by slow cookers from 2011 to 2015 was statistically insignificant and none were fatal, the blog points out.

There was apparently a need to clarify this, as some viewers of the show had started throwing out their slow cookers, fearful they would start a fire. “We have received many panicked questions about whether to use slow cookers at all due to this show, and wanted to assure people that they are not a statistically significant cause of fire, if used correctly,” NFPA wrote on Facebook. The public appreciated the clarification from NFPA. “Thanks NFPA for … being prompt about correcting the TV show,” one woman wrote on Facebook. Another wrote, “I know this will make you feel better about using your slow cooker.”

NFPA wasn’t the only organization to take note of the fire-starting slow cooker. Crock-Pot, a brand whose name has become synonymous with slow cookers, launched a PR campaign as a response to the show, creating a Twitter account and spreading the hashtag #CrockPotIsInnocent. “The game was lit. [Fire emoji], but NOT Crock-Pot! [Winking face] #CrockPotIsInnocent,” the company tweeted after the Super Bowl.

Even those involved with the show started defending slow cookers. Dan Fogelman, the show’s creator and head writer, tweeted: “Taking a moment to remind everyone that it was a 20 year old fictional crockpot with an already funky switch. Let’s not just lump all those lovely hardworking crockpots together.” Ventimiglia, the actor who plays Jack, appeared in a folksy commercial for Crock-Pot that aired before the episode where his character dies. “The country’s divided, and sometimes that can make it tough to find common ground,” Ventimiglia tells viewers as he strolls along the snack table on the “This Is Us” set. “I think we should all take a deep breath and find the ability to forgive, and remind ourselves there is no difference so great that we can’t overcome it.” The camera pans down to rest on a gleaming silver Crock-Pot, from which Ventimiglia scoops a ladle full of Super Bowl chili.

While long-running TV shows like “Chicago Fire” and new entries like “9-1-1” attempt to capture the drama of life as a first responder, it’s not often that fire’s impact on civilians is portrayed in those stories. What “This Is Us” has shown is that the result can be an explosion in needed public discussion on fire safety.

In some communities, it may even save lives. On the morning of the Super Bowl, the Encinitas, California, Fire Department invited its roughly 3,000 Twitter followers to post photos of themselves testing their smoke alarms. “It’s awesome that [‘This Is Us’ has] shown that there is no battery present [in the Pearsons’ smoke alarm],” Encinitas Senior Deputy Fire Marshal Kerri Berberet told NBC San Diego. “I’ve seen a lot of the Twitter chatter, so people are recognizing that they had no battery in their smoke alarm and tying it to the possible reason why.”

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top photo: Actor Milo Ventimiglia stands in front of a burnt house on the set of "This Is Us." Credit: Milo Ventimiglia via Twitter