Fighting Fire With Education

Marsha Giesler is on a mission. It’s a mission driven by a compelling idea — that there are ways to reinvigorate and amplify fire and life safety programs in schools, and partnerships that include local fire fighters is part of the way to get there.

Giesler is a member of the Downers Grove (Ill.) Fire Department — her titles are public information officer, assistant to the chief and juvenile fire interventionist — who’s been described as a “tireless advocate” for fire safety education. She’s also the recipient of National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) Fire and Life Safety Educator of the Year award 
for 2012.

This wife, mother and grandmother taught health and physical education, then general education, in K-12, in rural and suburban Illinois school districts. Her outreach efforts during the past 21 years have been to the community as a whole, and to K-12 in particular — Giesler typically visits as many as 17 elementary schools a month.

Safety Advocate. Educator. Author, too. Giesler has penned a book, Fire and Life Safety Educator, for fire service men and women who work with public education, and, as she points out, also “for teachers to learn about the topic.” Essentially, “it’s about learning to speak each other’s language,” Giesler says.

Such notions are at the core of Giesler’s approach, which centers on relating safety topics to youngsters. Also at the core: working with educators to advance the cause. As educators know, designing fire and life safety curriculums that hit the mark on a real, day-to-day basis isn’t easy. There are big issues like demands on educators’ time, and also the challenge of approaching fire safety education from the perspective of youngsters.

For example, many elementary school kids find fire trucks and fire fighting equipment to be cool, but there’s a flipside: firefighters can inadvertently appear frightening to a youngster in a stressful, confusing situation such as when a fire alarm sounds at school, or when there’s an actual fire at school or at home.

The solution: bringing firefighters in to meet youngsters in schools in non-emergency situations. It can make a key difference — firefighters explain who they are, what equipment they use and why, and just basically show that they “are good people,” she explains. According to Giesler, “I always picture who the end user is, and how I can be helpful to them.”

Being helpful doesn’t stop at the school’s doors: “We try to provide kids with a takeaway item — a conversation starter — that they can use, like a wristband or a cup with a slogan on it,” Giesler says. After all, “800 third graders can make 800 safer homes.”

Safety programs in schools are required by various state standards, but local firefighters can bring an added dimension to the process, in Giesler’s view. “If you can have a professional come and teach from a different perspective,” then it’s all to the good, she says.

Having a strong partnership between K-12 districts and the local fire service amplifies the beneficial effects, while lightening the load all around. Giesler’s approach is to build such programs to a district’s needs. When she works with a superintendent or a head of curriculum, for example, “I show them how what we do reinforces what they are trying to do,” she says.

“It’s not just about firefighters showing up and showing off gear. It’s grounded in sound educational principles, based on a curriculum that is scaffolded and age appropriate.” For example, “we have a eighth-grade curriculum keyed to science curriculum units,” explains Giesler. “Paramedics come in to schools and talk about first aid in those contexts.”

On another point, many school districts now have emergency preparedness teams. District superintendents and other district administrators are the crucial foundation to preparedness, but reach out to all those who should be involved. The table can only seat so many; but that being said, who else should be there? The roster should include police and fire department representatives, hospital administrators and staff, county health department officials, and a local or regional emergency management coordinator. Don’t forget your district’s public information officer, and communicators from those local police and fire departments, as well.

Additionally, valuable insights can come from a district’s facilities management team, who know about the nuts and bolts, like locks on doors and what safety systems are in what schools. Have someone from the district’s bus company on hand as well, Giesler points out. Essentially, think about including “anyone who might be involved” in an emergency situation.

Giesler urges districts to make a plan not only about where media should be in a fire or life safety emergency, but also how the district would reach out to local media in such a situation. Have a current contact list keyed into social media. Be prepared to be able to tweet, to take one example, or activate a reverse phone call.

There are outstanding fire and life safety professionals in districts from coast to coast, Giesler explains, and they are a great local or regional resource for districts looking to rejuvenate and amplify their fire and life safety education programs. She urges educators to check out NFPA’s website for ideas, well-researched curricula and reprintable handouts:

Scott Berman is a freelance writer with experience in educational topics.

About the Author

Scott Berman is a freelance writer with experience in educational topics.