Alabama is one of the states where fire risk for residents and fire death rate per capita are among the highest in the nation. Per the United States census, there are nearly five million people in the state with more than 18 percent of them living at or below national poverty standards. In other words, Alabama has the usual challenges regarding financial support for fire protection-and then some.
So, what is the state doing about that? I’m confident there is far more going on than I know about, but recent events have pointed toward renewed efforts in the state relative to fire prevention. In 2014, Ed Paulk, the recently retired state fire marshal, began working on efforts to install smoke alarms, which led to him asking for help from the Alabama Association of Fire Chiefs.
One of the key players to step up was Chief Alan J. Martin of Tuscaloosa Fire and Rescue Services. Martin is one of those fire chiefs who believe that prevention is an integral part of anyone’s community fire protection plan. But, he wanted to do something to support prevention efforts in the entire state, recognizing the need.
As usual, there is more to the story than I can relate here, but this group of fire service leaders pushed forward after a particularly gruesome year of fire deaths. By mid-winter of 2014, they had 40 fire fatalities and were motivated to do something about it. In Tuscaloosa, Martin converted a firefighter position and hired their first fire and life safety educator. He credits her with helping him and the state to craft unified educational messages designed to get people to take personal responsibility for their safety and to change behaviors.
That year, Martin and other fire chiefs in Alabama met to discuss what they could collectively do. Together they created their first statewide campaign named “Turn Your Attention to Fire Prevention.”
They had zero funds to work with but secured partnerships with their Chiefs Association, Alabama Power, Columbia Southern University, Poarch Creek Indians, Cardiac-Solutions, and the Alabama Fire College to begin moving forward. Among other things, they have created a Web page to which the public may be directed to learn much more about fire safety. In it, they use standardized messaging from the National Fire Protection Association so that they are collectively on the same page and have confidence the messaging is appropriate for the topic and audiences attended.
They have promoted the program and the Web site via billboards throughout Alabama, and many fire departments are now putting their logo on their fire apparatus. They are emphasizing outreach efforts into rural parts of their state and recently met with the Alabama Broadcasters to see if they could incorporate safety messages via the regular media. Those talks continue, but it’s an indicator of how hard they are collectively trying-with practically no funding-to move forward.
Recognizing that data collection and analysis is a significant challenge, they recently met with Dr. Laura Myers of the Center for Advanced Public Safety at the University of Alabama to discuss the problems they are having and how they might be overcome. They are beginning to look at a smartphone app that would help them collect fire data simply and pinpoint it by location.
The thing I like most about this is that they are committed to moving forward despite the obvious economic challenges. They have incorporated this campaign into the duties of their executive director for the Chiefs Association (Harlon Hutcheson), who is another supporter of their efforts. They all have challenging jobs of their own (which should sound familiar with most fire chiefs across the nation), but they haven’t let that stand in their way-something I think deserves attention and accolades.