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Fire safety website targets tough-to-reach age group

On Halloween night in 2008, fire destroyed an off-campus house near Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., that was home to five students. The home had working smoke detectors and all five students in the home escaped uninjured. Still, the fire was a wake up call for fire prevention experts in the region

July 6, 2010
By James Careless

Topics
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Photo courtesy Brock University
Videos aimed at university students are available for departments to peruse and use at www.knowfire.ca


 

On Halloween night in 2008, fire destroyed an off-campus house near Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., that was home to five students. The home had working smoke detectors and all five students in the home escaped uninjured. Still, the fire was a wake up call for fire prevention experts in the region.

 Young adults between 18 and 24 are the most difficult age group to reach for injury prevention programs, says Bradley Clarke, Brock University’s manager of student/community outreach. And fire safety education is no exception.

“The Ontario Fire Marshal’s office has thoroughly researched and developed fire safety education programs for elementary aged children and seniors,” Clarke says, “However, there were none specifically for the 18- to 24-year-old group.”

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The life-and-death implications of this ignorance were made clear that Halloween night. The fire chief and prevention officers concluded after the post-fire analysis that it was only a matter of time before a multiple death, single incident fire would occur in a rental dwelling, Clarke said in an interview.

The St. Catharines Fire and Emergency Services Department (SCFESD) knew something had to be done to engage university-aged students in fire prevention and fire safety and it turned to social media. Launched in September 2009, www.knowfire.ca features YouTube-like videos showing students caught in fire situations, and what can happen when smoke detectors are disconnected, exit doorways blocked and pizza boxes stuffed into unattended hot ovens. Shot by Brock University broadcasting students and featuring local students and firefighters as actors, the Knowire.ca videos are informative, high quality and riveting. The videos are two minutes long, which makes them ideal for the YouTube
generation.

The content, themes and narratives of the Knowfire.ca campaign were designed with extensive student input and the creative direction and development was handled by fourgrounds media, a company led by three recent Brock graduates, Clark says. The Knowfire.ca campaign was built to be shared using social media such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
St. Catharines’ former fire prevention inspector Donna Gill (now divisional chief of communications) was the driving force behind the creation of Knowfire.ca.

“In the past, we tried to reach students during frosh week by handing out pamphlets,” she says. “The students were polite, but we had no lineups at our desk. That’s where the idea of Knowfire.ca came from. Since these kids are into social media, we have to reach them using social media.”

The videos on Knowfire.ca deliver the fire safety message by focusing on situations and concerns that university aged students can relate to. The video that opens the site is a funny piece, showing what happens when a male student puts a pizza box in a 500-degree oven. Naturally, it starts to smoulder. The day is saved by the boy’s two calm female roommates. One calls the fire department, while the other removes the box and turns off the oven. The panicky male, meanwhile, gets stuck trying to jump out the window.

A more serious video details what happens when a female student who didn’t learn where her residence’s fire exits are suffocates in a smoke-filled hall; another shows the disfigurement suffered by a student who is burned after failing to replace a broken smoke alarm. Another video features a boy trapped in his student house basement during a party – someone put beer kegs against the door during a rowdy get together on the ground floor – seconds before the partiers knock over candles and set the house on fire. Viewers ride along with firefighters who talk about how fast fires spread, and a grief-stricken mother in hospital with her dying daughter discovers that she and her roommates removed the batteries from their smoke detectors.

“Our goal was to talk to the kids in terms that matter to them,” Gill says. “This is why the disfigurement video is so powerful, because at this age kids really care about their appearances. The use of graphic drama, like the girl suffocating in the hallway, was suggested by students in our focus groups. Meanwhile, the one humorous video gets the message across about sticking pizza boxes in a hot oven, while providing a level of comedy found in many successful viral videos.”

Collectively, the videos represent a team effort by the SCFESD, Brock University, Niagara College and the Niagara Region’s 12 fire departments as represented by Niagara Regional Fire Chiefs Association and the Niagara Chapter of the Ontario Fire Prevention Officers Association

Knowfire.ca also features fire safety info pages targeted at renters/students, parents and owners/landlords. Renters are told about taking part in fire drills, checking smoke alarms monthly and reducing false alarms. Owners/landlords are instructed on the importance of maintaining fire alarms and adhering to the Ontario Fire Code, and the fines for not doing so. And parents are advised how to help their children find fire-safe, properly maintained accommodations. All this information is topped off with a fire safety checklist and contacts for Niagara Region fire departments.

To get the word out about Knowfire.ca, fire departments in the Niagara Region have been talking up the site to newspapers, TV/radio and Internet sites/blogs. But what really caught the students’ attention for the 2009-2010 school year was a live fire demo on the campus in September 2009. A three-sided structure filled with furniture and accessories to look like a dorm room was burned in a campus parking lot. Then plexiglass was installed in place of the missing wall and the room was put on display.

Clearly, Knowfire.ca is a clever, well-thought-out campaign. It received a Global Best Honourable Mention Award in the building learning communities category for its global region, “The Americas,” at the 10th International Education Business Partnership Conference in Toronto in April, and the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services Innovation Award.

But is the website motivating kids to see the videos on the web? Within the first week of the Knowfire.ca website launch, 20,000 hits were recorded. Many institutions across North America – educational, fire services, and other – have included the Knowfire.ca website in their web- and print-based fire safety reference materials.

“Thirty-nine thousand Internet headline impressions were recorded for our online press release; 18 countries around the world visited the site, including Russia, China, Great Britain and the U.S,” says Clarke. “Most encouraging is that private businesses with fire safety connections – and valuable funding and promotional resources – have approached project partners to discuss further project collaborations. Included in this group are Kidde and Duracell.”

For Donna Gill, Knowfire.ca is an effective answer to the problem of reaching 18- to 24-year-olds. “Although we originally tailored this to serve our own city, the Knowfire.ca concept can work in any locality and in any language,” she says. “It is a model that really reaches the 18-to-24 age group and resolves the longstanding gap in making them fire safe.”
Canadian fire departments and universities can go to www.knowfire.ca and use its resources free of charge. 


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