Well fire prevention week wrapped up on the 15th of October, and we were not only able to teach the public a few things, we also learned a thing or two ourselves. We learned, as posted earlier, that people can rationalize some pretty strange choices when it comes to fire safety. We also learned something else, something very important; we learned not everyone can appreciate realism when it comes to the danger of fire in the home.
Last year our department built a fire prevention trailer; basically a house on wheels designed to teach kids how to get out of a smoke filled home. It has been a huge hit among school age kids; so much so, that this year we decided to upgrade. We not only added more smoke, we also installed a realistic looking light show in the kitchen, emulating a fire you can put it out with a laser spewing fire extinguisher. Very cool!
The new system worked like a charm. We drew in droves of kids and adults eager to try their hand at amateur firefighting. We all had a good time and everything went off without a hitch… that is until we visited the daycare center.
The kids in the daycare ranged in age from three to five, so needless to say, I decided to scale down the presentation and skip the special effects inferno. Notice I used the word “I” and not “we” (this will be an important detail later in the story).
As we set things up, the children emerged and were met at the front door by Sparky the fire dog. Sparky is, of course, a firefighter dressed in a friendly looking dog suit, but to these kids Sparky must have looked like a demon spawned from Hell.
As soon as they saw him, they turned and made for their door. It was like watching a tidal wave advance, then recede; a small, screaming, tidal wave of crying panicked children. Sparky retreated and the teachers reassured their students that Sparky wasn’t there to eat them.
After that fiasco was over, the children came around in to see the prevention house with me. They were all very excited to see the tiny rooms built just for them, and soon the terrors of Sparky the fire dog were for gotten… at least for the moment.
I went through my presentation, telling them how to get out of a house and how to dial 911 in an emergency. I bypassed the fire show in the kitchen, then took them to the miniature bedroom so they could practice using the fire escape. This was when everything went horribly wrong.
To add a bit of realism to the exercise, I have a button that allows me to add a little smoke to the room. Nothing drastic, just a little haze to show them what it might be like in a real fire. I told them about how fun and safe our pretend smoke was, then after teaching them the best ways to escape in an emergency, I let one of the little girls in the class push the button.
Smoke billowed out of the vent just as planned, then everything went south. The kids screamed and sandwiched themselves into a corner, smashing the poor boy in the back like a day old sausage. The little girl that pushed the button was clawing at it now, frantically trying to make the smoke go away. Shrieks of terror filled the air, and tears began to flow, it was a nightmare.
I tried to calm the kids down, assuring them they were safe, but they were already far beyond comforting. Their teacher, thankfully present as well, opened the little patio door to the fire escape and the kids poured out the opening like ants fleeing the stomping foot of a pre-adolescent boy.
The only good thing to come out of the whole mess was that they were all definitely eager to escape. No hiding under the beds or in closets for this crew, no sir. I think those kids would have torn through the wall with their teeth if they’d been stuck in there much longer.
We got the kids over the rail and down the ladder, despite the tearful fits of terror, then I turned back to warn the firefighter leading the class behind be about my unwitting mistake. I was too late.
As I opened the door to the small kitchen below, I saw my assistant chief standing there holding one of the simulated fire extinguishers, ready to demonstrate the full and impressively realistic lightshow I spoke of earlier.
As I opened my mouth to stop him, he hit the button on his remote. Pseudo flames erupted into a mass of noise and fake smoke and the kids in the room ran. Some ran out the door, some ran to the back of the trailer, and some just ran in circles, screaming in the kitchen.
I reached into my own pocket a pulled out another remote to turn off the system, but the damage had already been done; once again the shrieking voices of little children filled the air.
Later, after the kids competent caretakers calmed them down in the comfort of their classrooms, we reemerged and were able to explain that everything was just pretend “like a cartoon” I said. They seemed to understand; of course I thought they’d understood earlier as well.
We handed out candy and hats, then decided to forgo the firemen in turnout gear, thinking their little hearts might not be able to take any more. Needless to say, we will be rethinking out education program for preschoolers. I am thinking maybe a puppet show. A puppet show with no smoke, no fire, and a much smaller Sparky.
We called later and asked if the kids were doing all right and their teachers said they were fine. I guess they were even reenacting their exciting adventure on the playground. I hope, despite our lack of age appropriate material, something of our message sunk in. For even though it may have been a rough delivery, the lesson was important; if there’s a fire, get out!
I spent the next week or so expecting angry phone calls from parents, but none came and I was relieved that no permanent damage had been done.
We all have lessons to learn, and that week we learned a good one… “Never light a house on fire with children under the age of four!”