March 25 marked the 100-year anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City, which killed 146 workers. The disaster led to more stringent construction and exiting requirements—as well as one of the earliest pushes for fire sprinkler technology. Fire and building-code enforcement professionals understand that it often takes a disaster to spur public attention to create changes in the code. Such an event occurred last year on June 12 in Seattle.
According to a report from the Seattle Fire Department (SFD), an apartment fire in the city’s Fremont neighborhood took the lives of two girls, two boys and a 21-year-old woman. A foam mattress placed too close to a light bulb in a closet was the cause of the fire. The victims were all members of an East African family; several thousand people attended the memorial service.
Lisa VanHorn, the education manager for the SFD, said the tragedy resulted in a major outreach campaign to the city’s East African community. Dubbed the East African Community Fire Safety Advocate (CFSA) project, it was developed because the fire department had limited resources to deal with the community’s needs.
The CFSA project trains community members to become fire safety advocates in their own neighborhoods. What struck me when first hearing of this project was the fact that Seattle recognized the need to get community members involved in solving their own fire safety problems. In police circles, that is called community policing. In the U.S. fire service, it’s called community risk reduction.
The approximate 6,000 East Africans living in Seattle are from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. Many were born in the United States and speak English, but others struggle with the language and culture they find here. These issues can prevent them from obtaining the knowledge they need to be more fire-safe and make it harder for fire departments to reach them and gain their trust.
The SFD’s public education staff developed an outreach strategy that focused on three areas:
- Participation in East African community events;
- The development of presentations for churches, mosques and other organized groups where East African community members gather; and
- The formation of a cadre of local volunteer fire safety advocates who would conduct fire safety education for East African language speakers.
The CFSA project is responsible for identifying and training (15 hours each) five community members, and reaching out to conduct educational activities involving the community’s members.
Some will make the case that volunteer fire safety advocates take jobs away from people who have greater expertise. That’s a matter worthy of a national dialogue, especially with public workers under attack for their pay and benefits. Meanwhile, those responsible for prevention are trying to create innovative ways of finding community members who are in good standing with the community and have its trust, who speak the community language and who can go where uniformed members of the fire service may not.
The CFSA project has promoted knowledge and relationships that last beyond a single presentation. For example, an open house was arranged at a local fire station at the request of the East African community, whose members helped promote the event so that about 500 people attended. The SFD has also conducted pre- and post-testing to demonstrate cognitive knowledge gains of the more than 1,300 community members reached during the project’s pilot phase.
Seattle is the kind of place where the data will be looked at to see what kind of long-term risk or loss reductions occur as a result of the effort. Meanwhile, the SFD has demonstrated one of the key aspects of community risk reduction: effective partnerships.
It also occurs to me that they may have made some valuable friends in the community—friends who care about fire prevention and fire protection services.