3 Myths & Truths of Pub Ed

I make it a habit of reading every Fire Master/Strategic Plan I come across. I’m a bit of a Plan nerd that way. A Fire Department’s Master Plan is a municipality’s short & long term strategic plan for its fire & emergency services. It’s also an accurate reflection of how modern/proactive that organization is.

One of the key signs that a fire department is still stuck in the old ways, is how its plan addresses non-suppression areas of its services. A traditional, suppression-centric fire department will go into great detail about its firefighting resources, apparatus, equipment, training and capital/human asset future needs… but only devote a small fraction of the document to areas like public education, inspections/enforcement, administration and communications. I have found that Public Education is the leading area most often undervalued, misaligned and misunderstood.

While my blood boils beneath the surface reading so many myths about non-suppression facets of the fire service, as always I have to be part of the solution. It is clear to me that the authors/participants, of the suppression-centric and Pub-Ed-myth-infused documents, simply do not have a deep understanding of what Pub Ed is – and isn’t.

This post was inspired by those Master Plans…

Myth #1 – Suppression is everything; Pub Ed is an “extra expense”

Truth: Putting all your eggs in the Suppression basket is a bit like trying to win a hockey game with only a goalie. As any sports fan will tell you, the most successful teams have highly skilled offence, defence and goalies working together. Great, Cup-winning goalies are revered – and the responsibility on their shoulders of being the last line of defence is heavy – but they didn’t get to hoist the Stanley on their own.

A successful fire department (and its respective safer community) is one that is “three lines strong” or 3LS. That means the fire department serves its community by investing in a balanced approach of Public Education – Inspections/Code Enforcement – Emergency Response. The FDs that are strongest consider each of the three areas to be specialized fields, each requiring highly skilled and trained staff, community-responsive resources and the budget with which to accomplish its goals.

Public Education is a fire department’s first chance at saving the most lives. It really is. Thanks to lightweight construction, synthetic material contents and apathy toward safety, there is a lot less time for firefighters to get there and rescue someone. More often than not, occupants either self-evacuate or their bodies are recovered. In present day, time to self-evacuate is not the result of suppression response times; it is (almost) always the result of working smoke alarms and knowing what to do when those alarms sounded. And those two elements are a direct result of Public Education & Code Enforcement.

The number one missed opportunity I find with fire departments, is that its emergency response crews assume responsibility for non-fire incidents (medicals, vehicle collisions, marine rescue, etc.) yet the FD doesn’t fully exercise the “life safety” part of its Public Education efforts. Addressing some of the non-fire risks may require partnerships with other agencies (police, EMS) but the resulting effort could mean a big reduction in incident volume and/or severity. Less severity and fewer incidents = safer community. That’s not an extra expense; that’s a wise investment.

Myth #2 – Public Education can’t be measured… or measured short-term.

Truth: Unlike suppression, where it’s quickly obvious if the fire was extinguished or not, Public Education performance is not as obvious; BUT, it IS possible to measure.

Goal-setting is paramount in performance benchmarking. For suppression, the goals include quick response time, safe and effective suppression, property/lives saved, happy ratepayers, etc. The only difference is, suppression knows what their success looks like, but Pub Ed isn’t given the same approach. A common assumption is that the goal of public education is simply to prevent fires, and therefore how could we measure the number of fires that didn’t happen?

While preventing fires is absolutely a goal of Pub Ed, it’s not the only one. Common Pub Ed goals include:

  • Smoke/CO alarm compliancy rates
  • Self-evacuation rates in fire events
  • Call severity/volume decrease
  • Community relations/outreach
  • Non-fire incident rates (i.e. police partnerships to reduce MVCs)
  • Student fire safety retention rates
  • Social media reach/analytics
  • Recruitment quality/quantity
  • Safer suppression personnel (mental & physical health)
  • Death/injury statistics
  • Assist meeting legislative requirements (i.e. fire drills)

All of the above goals are measurable and achievable with the right amount of dedication & resources. It just requires staff who have goal-setting and performance measurement skills and who possess strong knowledge of effective Public Education.

Myth #3 – Giving out info & swag = Public Education

Truth: There is a difference between information distribution and public education. While brochures and plastic helmets are certainly tools we use, they are not Pub Ed on their own.

WHAT Public Education is:

Public Education is an organization’s communication, activity and engagement which compel a target audience to learn or change a target behaviour.

SOME TOOLS used to achieve Public Education:

  • Public Relations (photo ops, success stories, charitable campaigns)
  • Community Engagement (media, social media, surveys, in-person interactions, websites/apps)
  • Instructional Sessions (school visits, highrise seminars, industry & staff training)
  • Giveaways (contests, plastic helmets, printed materials, safety swag)
  • Strategic Planning (corporate plans, master plans, risk assessments, incident data, community profile analysis, forecasting, Pub Ed strat plans, lesson plans)
  • Stakeholders (partnerships, sponsors, Council support, industry experts/agencies)
  • Equipment/Assets (vehicles, alarm inventory, uniforms, lesson-specific equipment, signage)

Implement the Truths

If you are tasked with creating a Fire Master Plan, make sure that you are an expert in each facet you’re including, or involve someone who IS an expert in that facet. That may require hiring a consulting firm or seeking input from industry experts outside your department.

Your community deserves the best analysis and recommendations in order to be safer for years to come. A safer community requires that your fire department be three lines strong – therefore, so does your plan.

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