Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Fully Engaged: April 2011

By Ken Sheridan   

Features Hot Topics Prevention

The fire service is extraordinarily different than it was not too long ago. Through common sense, legislation and technical advancements, fighting fires today has become more of an art than hope-for-the-best approach.

The fire service is extraordinarily different than it was not too long ago. Through common sense, legislation and technical advancements, fighting fires today has become more of an art than hope-for-the-best approach.

However, I am very concerned that we, as a fire service, are not thinking about the big picture. If you were to ask your members what they know about fire prevention and education issues, how would they respond? I ponder why we as a fire service have not made more of an effort to increase our own knowledge of fire prevention strategies and share that information with the public with confidence.

Many of us have heard and probably believe that admitting we have a problem is the first step to dissolving a damaging addiction. Before that admission, there is usually a chain of events that forces us to admit that there is a problem, to recognize the problem and understand that we must play a significant role in order to solve the problem.

I recently joined a support group to help me lose weight. It’s not a diet. They don’t have any special food or anything to buy for that matter. The plan follows the same premise of Alcoholics Anonymous. The same literature is used and the practical steps followed with permission of A.A. Focusing on my addiction to eating and eating the foods that my body does not process well has been an education. It’s the best thing I’ve done for myself in a long time. I’ve learned a key strategy from this. If you want to make a change, you have to change your behaviour.

Easier said than done. I have remained committed to my decision and I am reaping many positive benefits such as lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure and more energy.

 I’m not a psychologist, but I’ve drawn a parallel to the way some humans think about their personal conditions and that of the fire service. Some of us may have addictive behaviours and not know it – addictions such as smoking or caffeine or sugary foods. Some of us know we have an addiction and are doing nothing to correct it. Others are working to correct these addictive behaviours with success or a degree of success. Sadly, some don’t care about their problems and how they affect them or those around them.

All of this is metaphoric jargon to direct your attention to our own fire service. Ask yourself, “Do we have a problem educating our citizens about fire?” If you answered “no”, then turn the page and read another article. However, I trust that many of you answered, “Yes, we may have a problem.” In my experience, this is the case for many fire departments across the county.

If you’re lucky enough to have a public fire educator on your department you’ve got a head start. However, all firefighters have a significant role to play in public fire safety education. We have a responsibility to do this.

If we have admitted we have this problem – the lack of public education knowledge or lack of will to attain and share the knowledge – it’s time to do something about it. Educate yourself about fire prevention measures and how to relay this knowledge to the public. This is not rocket science, but it is more than a fire station tour.

Look into what other fire departments are doing to educate their citizens in fire prevention and public education. Meet or call other fire departments and firefighters to pick their brains. Read magazines (like this one), get a sense of what’s going on out there regarding public education and allow yourself to think how you might incorporate strategies for your own community with only one caveat – it can’t cost any taxpayers money, at least not yet (I will discuss financial strategies in the next issue).

Find an ally in your department you trust and who won’t laugh at you when you share ideas with her or him. Spend less time with those who don’t have the foresight that you do and your desire to change the status quo.

If you discover a small, simple approach or plan that, if implemented, could make a difference in just one life, explore how it can be accomplished. You may need to do a bit of research and write a short proposal on paper so it makes sense to you and your fire chief, and with his/her approval, give it a try. Don’t think too big here – perhaps a door-to-door smoke-alarm campaign, or a display at a local store or mall with fire personnel promoting fire prevention and education.

 That brings me to another issue: the fire chief. Most of what happens in your fire department depends on the fire chief giving a nod to affirm, defer or decline a proposal regardless of what division is asking. You have to educate the chief – gently of course. Don’t laugh – it can be done. Send all sorts of things to your chief via e-mail, photocopies, faxes or whatever it takes to educate her/him about fire issues and how to resolve them through prevention. Meet with your chief (this is easier, perhaps, in a smaller department) or senior officer if possible, and explain your idea or at least explain the problem and the fact that you want to do something about it. I’m a strong believer that passion and influence are keys to unlock the door of change. Be sure not to offend anyone in this process. If you have to go above an officer to meet with the chief, always ensure you follow the chain of command.

If you get the blessing of the chief, put your proposal into action. Make it happen.

Ken Sheridan is captain of fire prevention in Norfolk County, Ont. He is a certified fire prevention officer and certified fire and life safety educator for the Province of Ontario. He is a graduate of the Dalhousie University fire administration program and has more than 21 years in fire suppression and fire prevention. Contact him at

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