TB Tip: The Straw Test

Why do the straw test?

The general public’s exposure to what a fire is like, mainly comes from Hollywood. One look at any movie or TV show that featured a fire, generally shows fog-like smoke that is easily seen through and navigated (with the occasional cough thrown in for dramatic effect).

Firefighters and fire victims know that the smoke is thick, black and makes it impossible to breathe. They know how disorienting it can be and how much panic it creates.

The straw test is designed to give the audience the real sensation of limited and no breathing capability. Which magnifies the importance of your safety messages. It can be done virtually or in person. I’ll summarize the best ways to do both below.

Warning Clause

In order to protect yourself and your audience, you should invite any audience member who has respiratory issues, asthma (or heck, just a very bad cold) to refrain from the straw test. Instead, ask them to watch their fellow audience members and report their observations after the test is complete.

Also keep in mind the age of your audience. A straw may present a choking hazard for very young children. Adult supervision is recommended.

Virtual Straw Test

It’s really hard to keep a virtual audience’s attention, especially during a safety talk. And how on earth do we make a virtual talk… interactive? Enter the straw test!

In advance, ensure your audience knows to come prepared with a thick straw (large drink straw, milkshake straw, etc.) and a thin straw (cocktail straw, juice box straw). That’s it. That’s all the materials they need.

Walk through the talk about how fires start, common causes, etc. Whatever age-appropriate approach works for you. Then you’re going to demonstrate breathing through each straw (they can only breathe through their mouth/straw) and how to plug the end of the thin straw with their fingertip. Then start the timers!

Afterward… ask observers (if any) what they saw. Ask participants how they felt… was it difficult to breathe? Then launch into what smoke is REALLY like in a fire, how much time they have vs how quickly the fire department will get there, and how important it is to close the door, have a home escape plan, etc.

In Person Straw Test

Obviously in person is always the best and most flexible option. Here are a few ways to make the straw test (as explained above) even better:

  • Have kids breathe through the straw while crawling through an obstacle course
  • As participants go through your fire safety house, have them wear fogged-out goggles and do the straw test as they make their way through
  • If in a large space (gym, outdoors) – have participants identify in pairs, mix everyone up geographically, then have them do the straw test, eyes closed and try to find their pair buddy

Invite your audience to repeat the straw test with their family at home as part of making home escape planning fun.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

― Maya Angelou

I welcome feedback and invite you to comment!

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