Last August, something predictable happened in Fort Collins, Colorado: a fire. What happened after has some great lessons for the rest of us.
In private off-campus university housing, a fire broke out on the deck because of a fire pit being used improperly and was made worse by the venting of a 20-pound propane gas cylinder near the fire. It was attached to a BBQ, feeding the fire and causing it to grow far more quickly than it would have on its own.
All of this came to my attention through the efforts of Ed Comeau, the author of a national subscription newsletter called Campus Firewatch, an initiative that focuses on college campus safety. Through Ed, I learned that the Poudre (CO) Fire Authority (PFA), which serves a 235-square-mile area that includes Fort Collins, has been participating in the Town/Gown Fire Safety Community Service project. The concept of the project is to involve college students in public safety outreach efforts, in this case having students go alongside firefighters to install smoke alarms.
In this fire, five students were able to escape. The smoke alarms were working and, in fact, had just been replaced days prior to the fire. Another factor in fire containment was the fact that several doors in the student housing were kept closed, compartmentalizing the fire. Still, it was very close because two of the students had to crawl out of a basement window because they were trapped by the fire. Some of the students suffered serious injuries and were hospitalized, but no person died, although a dog unfortunately did.
At this point, the story is a success in that no one was killed. My peers in the fire protection community would argue the issue of how we might prevent the fire from happening in the first place, and they would be right to do so. That is where the second part of this story comes in.
Tour the Scene
PFA Education Specialist Michael Durkin teamed up with Ben Gondrez, from the Museum of Discovery in Fort Collins, to create a virtual reality (VR) tour of the fire scene. With the use of a relatively inexpensive 360-degree camera and some VR goggles (also inexpensive), the team created what I consider to be a very powerful tool to help educate the public about how these events can be prevented and how to survive them if they do occur.
The tour can be viewed on a laptop easily enough but is even more powerful when viewed through an application for smartphones combined with the VR goggles. The PFA took advantage of this fire, and very near tragedy, to educate other students by setting up a table at the college with the appropriate hardware (including VR goggles) for students to see firsthand what could happen—or better, what had already happened—in their community. This was done as part of the annual Flash Point fire safety event that the PFA puts on in partnership with Colorado State University. The tour has also been used at additional training, including with Fort Collins-based landlords who rent to students and other residents alike.
The base of this educational approach is not new: taking advantage of a local fire to educate others in the community about how to prevent, or survive, them. What is new is the fact that the PFA has done so in a fashion that provides a new medium for reaching people, especially young people who are inundated with attempts from various media platforms vying for their attention every day. Elevating the technology used to get and hold students’ attention seemed to be a very innovative way to reach what I would describe as an increasingly desensitized audience that will perhaps pay less attention to our old ways of communicating with them.
A “Real” Experience
Data from the PFA show the 360-degree video was viewed more than 1,200 times since it was posted publicly in September on PFA’s Web site and across its social media platforms. Making a fire scenario as “real” as possible, without actually having to experience one, may just be the best way to capture the public’s attention when people are distracted by the onslaught of information they receive daily.
It has been said that the “proof of the pudding is in the eating,” and I’ll be watching for measurement about the results from these types of efforts. But while we’re studying things, I don’t think we should be prevented from experimenting with innovative ways to educate the public we serve. And the more people using this approach, the more opportunities we’ll have to gather data on its effectiveness over time.
Those wishing to know more can view the video at www.campus-firewatch.com/vr. At that same link, readers can also learn more about the Town/Gown Fire Safety Community Service project, a notable national effort. And for on the ground information, readers can reach out to Michael Durkin at firstname.lastname@example.org. My thanks to Ed Comeau, Michael Durkin, and Ben Gondrez for bringing this great example to my attention.
Jim Crawford, FIFireE, is project manager for Vision 20/20 and a retired fire marshal and deputy chief of the Vancouver (WA) Fire Department. He is a member of the NFPA technical committee on professional qualifications for fire marshals, a former member of the Standards Council for the NFPA, a fellow of the Institution of Fire Engineers, a life member of the IAFC, and past president of the International Fire Marshal’s Association. Crawford is the author of Fire Prevention Organization and Management and is an editorial board member of FireRescue. He has received the R. Wayne Powell Excellence in Fire Prevention Award, the Dr. Anne Phillips award for leadership in fire and life safety education from the Congressional Fire Services Institute and the International Fire Service Training Association, the “Fire Protection Person of the Year” from the Society of Fire Protection Engineers, and the Percy Bugby Award from the International Fire Marshal’s Association.