The Critical Difference In Messaging — What is PR, Pub Ed, and….

There are Major Differences to note Between True Public Education, Public Information Sharing and Public Relations.

Before we can understand true public education, and properly educate, we need to look at the definitions of three roles that fire chiefs, firefighters and fire and life safety educators, play when we are in the public eye. More often than not the very professionals performing such roles in the public arena, are blurring the lines.

Barrie Ontario Fire Department Fire Chief Bill Boyes1. PR — The Uniform Communicates a Message

As soon as we put on a fire-department uniform, whether we are a volunteer or career firefighter, we represent the fire service as a whole. The general public has no idea about the different divisions (suppression, prevention, administration, training); they see a firefighter and they have expectations of that firefighter. Whether holding open a door for somebody or driving a personal vehicle to and from work, while in uniform we are representing the fire service. We are really good at public relations and are held in high esteem by our communities.

2. Public Information is “Telling”

Public information is disseminated when when we “tell” people about a specific topic. Such information could be communicated through: social media; a door-to-door campaign with brochures; a display rack of pamphlets in the front entrance of the fire hall; or a conversation at a community event. Basically, public information is the data or messages that are provided to community about fire-safety topics. We do a good job with public information sharing and there certainly is no shortage of quality material that is convenient and easy to read.

3. Public Fire & Life Safety Education a “Horse of a Different Color”

Public education goes one step further, it takes the information, adds skill development and life experience to incorporate learning, and this measure hopefully results in behavioral change. As public fire and life safety educator, who has been fighting fires (before they start) for more than 25 years, it is offensive to me to hear that anyone can do public education and that no specialized training is required. For some fire departments, a firefighter on modified duty is tasked with public education. In other departments, when a tour or school visit is scheduled, it falls upon the junior firefighter.  In both cases these firefighters most often do not have specialized public-education skills.

We are Doing a Disservice by Assigning Unskilled Firefighters to Perform Public Education Duties.

Fire services tend to struggle with public education because we have some old-fashioned beliefs and misconceptions – we don’t spend time learning key messages, and for the most part we don’t know how to educate.

We would never send an injured firefighter or a junior firefighter into a fully involved structure fire, yet we think nothing of standing newer department members in front of a group of people – adults and/or children – and telling him or her to talk. This is not fair to the firefighter being asked to give the presentation and it is definitely not fair to the public audience.

In these situations [unskilled firefighters delivering education] people see a firefighter in uniform and expect expert advice and information; they might have gone to see the big red truck, to meet their local firefighters and until this point, have witnessed only the television and/or movie version of fire fighting.

We are doing a disservice if we do not take the opportunity to properly educate people and provide the life-saving information they need to prevent and survive a fire. Each and every time someone comes into a fire station, we are given a valuable opportunity to provide information and change behavior.

Training Firefighters for “Success” as Fire and Life Safety Educators

Training divisions spend hours teaching recruits about pulling fire hoses, doing auto extrication and how to tie knots, but very little time,   if any, is spent on public education, general fire safety, and how to teach an audience. Fire services need to make sure that all firefighters have the tools and skills to deliver a good public-education program.

There are some great resources available to help departments develop an effective fire and life safety education program. I believe every firefighter should be certified to NFPA 1035, Level I Fire and Life Safety Educator. It takes approximately 20 hours to obtain this certification, providing the basic knowledge and skills for:

  • Basic fire-prevention activities;
  • The foundations of public fire and life safety education;
  • Current educational materials;
  • The major causes of unintentional injury;
  • Characteristics of learning, particularly those for high-risk groups in the community, e.g., children and seniors;
  • Evaluation of lesson plans;
  • Presentation methods, including the effective use of audio-visual aids;
  • Media relations; and
  • Record keeping and provincial fire statistics.

Educating all firefighters to NFPA 1035 is an initiative that we are pilot-testing at Barrie Fire & Emergency Service. Fire Chief Bill Boyes has agreed that all front-line staff should be certified to NFPA 1035, at a minimum. If public education truly is the first line of defense, doesn’t it make sense that fire departments commit to providing staff with the tools and skills they need to be successful?

The Fire-ED Community supports and promotes true Public Education and agrees that “not everyone can teach fire and life safety!” We recognize that it’s crucial to have the proper training before teaching potentially life saving skills. We also push that it is equally as important for trained educators to have good quality teaching tools to do their job right.

About the author: Samantha Hoffmann

Samantha Hoffmann has been in the fire safety field for over 25 years. She started her fire career at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto as Fire Marshal and Emergency Planning Coordinator. In 1996 she joined North York fire department in the rank of firefighter. Samantha worked in North York and after amalgamation with the Toronto Fire Service as an Acting Captain in the Prevention, Public Education and Media Sections. In August of 2011 Samantha joined Barrie Fire as their first dedicated Public Fire and Life Safety Officer.

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