Fire Safety Education - Knowing Your Audience Ed Kirtley, M Ed Officer/Instructor Coordinator

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1 Fire Safety Education - Knowing Your Audience Ed Kirtley, M Ed Officer/Instructor Coordinator I recently had the privilege of teaching a course on public education methods to a group of students from Massachusetts. Throughout the week we had several opportunities to visit about the challenges faced by the fire and life safety educator today. Much has changed in the twenty five years since I gave my first fire safety presentation to a group of school kids. One of the students, a deputy chief, was from a Boston suburb. During a discussion on knowing your audience he commented on the fact that in his community there are 41 separate ethnic groups represented in the local schools. Many of the students reinforced his comments with stories of the diversity in their own communities. It was not too long ago when this type of ethnic diversity was only found in large metropolitan areas. Today, diverse groups can be found just about anywhere in the United States large cities, quiet suburbs and rural towns and villages. Each of these ethnic groups brings their cultural differences with them. These differences may include language, lifestyle, religious beliefs, and cultural norms and values. In some cases, these differences are subtle. For example, many Hispanic immigrants are devout Catholics and their religious practices are virtually the same as Catholics already living in the United States. In other cases, the differences can be noticeable. For example, some of the groups from Southeast Asia have very close-knit families where several generations may live in the same apartment together. This is a contrast to the typical one family one dwelling American lifestyle. In all cases these ethnic groups are still at risk from fire and preventable injuries. In fact, some of the groups have a higher incidence of fire than the average U.S. population. Regardless of where the group comes from, or where they are living, they need fire and life safety information in a manner they can understand and act upon. This is the responsibility of the fire safety educator. Once an educator has determined that there is an immigrant community that has developed in the department s jurisdiction, even if it is a small group, it is time to learn more about the culture of the community. There are several methods for developing such an understanding. I believe the best method based on my experiences working with immigrant communities is to develop a working relationship with someone from within the culture. This person does not have to be leader in the group, but they must be able to make a connection between both worlds. In many cases high school age young adults are the best in this area. They have been immersed in the American culture long enough to understand it, and they still have deep roots in their ethnic culture. Another source of information is the internet. There is probably not a single ethnic group that may locate in your community that is not already established in some other Page 1 of 5

2 community. In other words, some other government or non-profit agency has already crossed the bridge you are trying to cross. When you do your search, don t limit it to just fire department programs. Search public health departments, schools, social services, crime prevention, and community development agencies and programs. A third source of information is the staff at larger universities. The campus of a large university is a home of cultural diversity and ethnic membership. Faculty and professional staff can usually put you in contact with a student from that culture. Some student life offices may even have programs and information files that can provide you with the information you need. Speaking of needed information, what information is needed in order to develop and deliver education presentations that will be effective in reducing risk from fire and preventable injuries? There are six questions that you should ask when gathering information on the culture. Those questions are: What are the lifestyle habits and practices of the group? What the social practices of the group? What is the community and family hierarchy? How does the group communicate with each other and with the rest of the community? What is the group s experience with emergency services and government? In terms of interaction and support from the rest of the community, is the group independent or interdependent? Let s look at each of these questions individually. What are the lifestyle habits and practices of the group? Any experienced fire safety educator knows that a large portion of residential fire risk has to do with the lifestyle habits of the individual and family. When asking this question you must pay attention to any habits which may increase the risk of fire or injury. For example, if it is a cultural norm to cook food in deep skillets filled with grease the risk of kitchen fires and burns increases. The multi-generational living habits of Southeast Asians mentioned earlier is another example of a lifestyle habit. It is important to also look a little deeper at these habits. In some cases the habit may reflect a situation that does not represent the culture of the group but rather a situation imposed on them as a new immigrant living in this country. For example, in an area that utilizes a large number of Hispanic immigrants it is common to find several families living in the same house or apartment. This situation may be from economic necessity or from a lack of available housing rather than it being part of the cultural lifestyle. Is the risk of injury by not being able to escape during a fire still increased? Yes it is and fire safety education is still needed. What are the social practices of the group? How do the members of the community gather to socialize? What type of recreation do they participate in? Do they tend to live in close proximity to each other, or are the members of the group scattered throughout Page 2 of 5

3 the community? These answers will identify potential methods for meeting with the group members. What is the community and family hierarchy? In many ethnic groups there is a specific person or group of people that make the decisions for the entire group. Many times this is an elder. Sometimes this elder is the oldest male living in the area. In other cultures it is the oldest woman in the family. If it is necessary to gain the trust of the group in order to have them take some type of safety action, you must understand this hierarchy. To violate this hierarchy can be an insult to not only the leader, but to the members of the group as a whole. How does the group communicate with each other and with the rest of the community? One of the most difficult challenges with fire safety initiatives involving immigrants is reaching the group with fire safety information that every member of the group can easily understand. The first element of this involves actually getting the information to the group. Most immigrant groups will not speak or read English at a functional level, especially the older members. In fact, some may not even read their native language. Putting a story in the local English language newspaper probably won t have much of an impact. But because the members of the group may not be reading the local newspaper, or may not watch local television doesn t mean that a communication network doesn t exist. There is probably a very effective communication network within the group. In some communities immigrants have a native language newspaper that is widely read. These newspapers provide information from home, pertinent local news, advertisements, etc. These newspapers are an excellent communication medium about fire safety information. Similarly, there may be a local radio station in the native language. This is also an excellent medium to communicate information. Having the luxury of a native language newspaper or radio station may make your job a little easier. Unfortunately, many immigrant groups will not have any formal communication mediums such as newspapers and radio. Rather, communication is through an informal network between members of the group. This generally involves person-to-person communication during social activities such as religious meetings, dances, family events, etc. While this medium is not as easily accessed as newspapers, it can be just as effective and in some cases more effective. It will require work on your part to identify how to access the medium and the best way to format the messages so they can be understood and acted upon. Speaking of understanding the message, you must remember that a fire safety concept that has meaning to you, or to someone that was raised in the U.S., may not make any sense whatsoever to someone who has just moved here from another country. In most Third-World countries smoke alarms are not used. A message that encourages a family to mount a smoke alarm will not make any sense and consequently will be ignored. Page 3 of 5

4 Creating a successful message means putting the behavior in terms that a member of the group can understand AND can act upon. For some behaviors and risk issues, this may require reaching the younger children who can communicate the information to the adults and seniors in the group. In other cases, the most effective strategy may be to get the endorsement of the elder or leaders in the group. You may have to use pictures or symbols if the members of the group don t read their native language. Success in this area depends heavily on how well you gather information with the questions previously mentioned. However, the communication barrier can be overcome. What is the group s experience with emergency services and government? The fire service has long been part of the American culture. However, in many countries no organized fire protection exists. The concept of a fire fighter or of fire prevention simply does not exist. There are some countries that do have fire protection but those fire fighters do not have any interaction with the public. In still other cases, the fire department represents the government an institution that is viewed with suspicion and with which any interaction is avoided. If any of these scenarios apply to the immigrant group with whom you are working, it is critical that time is invested at the beginning of the initiative to gain the trust of the influential members of the group and from that gain credibility as a person and program that cares about their welfare and is there to help them. In a real sense you may have to create their first positive experience with a government agency. You must also understand the reality of the situation with some immigrant groups. Currently there is a clash between the need for low-cost labor that can be provided by immigrants and the illegal entry of those immigrants into the U.S. The very group you may be trying to reach is working hard to NOT be reached by a government agency. Initially you will probably be viewed as an agency with the authority to cause problems and even return them to their native country. Overcoming this stigma will require work by not only the fire safety educator, but by every member of the organization who interacts with the group. Word will quickly spread if the fire department and the fire safety educator are trying to ensure the fire safety of the members of the immigrant community. Likewise, word will spread just as quickly if fire department ignores or worsens the living situation and safety of the group. In terms of interaction and support from the rest of the community, is the group independent or interdependent? By the time you have answered the other questions you should understand how the group interacts with the community. If the immigrant group is well established in the community most likely there will be a large degree of interdependence. In this interdependence means that members of the group are employed throughout the community, utilize the medical facilities on a regular basis, own businesses, participate in school activities, are active in civic groups, etc. When interdependence exists it is much easier to reach the members of the immigrant or ethic community. Keep in mind that in a well established immigrant community there may be one or two generations of the ethnic group that were born and raised in the U.S. Page 4 of 5

5 In other cases, especially when an immigrant group is new to a community, the ethnic group may be independent from the rest of the community. In this situation, members of the group generally minimize any interaction with other residents of the community. They may shop at the local supermarket, but then go home and only socialize with other members of the group. When the ethnic or immigrant community is independent it is more of a challenge to reach the members of the group with fire safety messages. As explained before, the best strategy for success with an independent group is to build a relationship of trust and credibility. As the diversity of the country continues to increase, the fire safety educator will be challenged to find news ways to reach these groups with fire safety and injury prevention messages. This is not an impossible task, but will require the educator to understand the ethnic group and to then use this information to build a successful working relationship with the members of the group. In all cases, success depends on mutual understanding, respect, trust and the credibility of the fire department and the fire safety educator. Page 5 of 5

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