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Fire Safety: Early Lessons Save Young Lives
By Robert Cole

Pam watches with delight as her cake is brought into the room, topped by four glowing candles. Family and friends sing “Happy Birthday.” She makes a wish and easily blows out all the candles. Everyone applauds.

At the age of four, Pam has already learned a lot about fire, at least as she has experienced it in those birthday candles. She’s learned that fire is fun, friendly – and easily controlled. Unfortunately those beliefs, combined with a few unsupervised minutes and matches left within her reach, could lead to tragedy.

No one would want to take away Pam’s delight in her birthday candles, or in the many pleasant family activities that involve fire – camping, barbecuing, cooking and religious ceremonies. But we do need to teach children, including very young children, that fire is an adult tool. And we need to teach them the life safety skills that can save their lives in a fire.

Fireproof Children in Rochester, New York has been working on the problem of juvenile firesetting for nearly 20 years. The following suggestions for teaching fire safety to young children are based on extensive research we have conducted and successful intervention and educational programs we developed, working with the Rochester Fire Department and BIC Corporation.


Young Children and Fire

When most people hear the phrase “juvenile firesetter,” they picture a troubled adolescent. But that’s not the case at all. One in four fires are set by children under the age of five.[i]

Is there something terribly wrong with these children? Not at all. They are normal, curious children who mean no harm. They set fires not out of malice but because fire is fascinating, and because they don’t understand the consequences.

Yet the fires set by young children can have tragic results. Almost 80 percent of the fires started by preschool children caused some amount of structural damage – more than twice the rate of structural damage in the fires started by children five and older. The chance of injury resulting from a fire started by a child under five is three times the chance of injury in a fire started by an older child. And the chance of death in a fire started by a preschool child is 27 times the chance of death from a fire started by a child five or older.[ii]

Why? Young children start fires almost exclusively in the home, which increases the likelihood of both property damage and injury. In fact, children are most likely to start a fire in their own bedrooms[iii] – where they spend much of their free time, feel comfortable, where parents assume they are safe, and where a fire may remain undetected by adults for some time.


Who Starts Fires?

Children who live in poverty tend to start more reported fires than other children. In Rochester, the children who were reported to the fire department for fireplay were three times more likely to be on a reduced-price or free-lunch program than those who were not.[iv]

One reason for this may be that more children living in poverty live in multiple family dwellings, where a fire may be more likely to be reported. There are indications, however, that poor children are truly at higher risk for fire injuries and death. Poverty has been identified as a very important factor related to unintentional injuries in children. In one study, low-income children were two and a half times more likely to die of injury than other children, and five times more likely to die in a fire.[v]

One factor may be that poor housing with a greater presence of fire hazards makes fireplay more likely to start a serious fire. In addition, very poor families are more likely to be under a variety of stresses. This can lead to less adequate supervisions, which is a major contributing factor to children's involvement with fire.

Boys start over 80% of child-started fires. While it’s hard to say exactly why this is so, related statistics show that boys tend to take more risks than girls, and are 50% more likely to sustain an accidental injury of any kind.[vi] Interestingly, in Rochester we found that when boys play with matches and lighters, they are more likely to set something on fire. Girls who play with matches and lighters are more likely to do so without igniting any item. This puts boys at greater risk.


Why Do Children Set Fires?

Children’s beliefs about fire are based on their own experience, not what adults tell them. Kids think...

·        Fire is familiar. Fire is an integral part of many carefree and enjoyable activities, from the candles on birthday cakes to family campouts. Kids see fire being used at the dinner table, on the stove, at picnics, and in religious ceremonies. They associate it with food, comfort, and fun. Fire is fascinating – a responsive toy.

·        Fire is fragile. Pam blew out those birthday candles with a single breath. Camping trips spent trying to start a fire with wet wood, barbecues with old charcoal, lighting matches in the wind, and uncooperative fireplaces leave children with the impression that fires are hard to start and easy to stop.

·        “I can handle this.” Familiarity with fire, from the kinds of common activities described above, gives children an exaggerated sense of control over fire. Every candle or match a child lights and extinguishes, and every experience of fireplay without consequences, reinforces this belief.

Children don’t understand that a tiny flame can become a fire that burns down a whole house. Preschool children may understand simple cause and effect, but not more complex consequences. They cannot imagine the chain of events that lead from a single match to a raging house fire.  Kids often don’t even know what items normally found in their home will burn, such as drapes and wallpaper. Many adults don’t even know how rapidly fire can spread.

In one survey we did of elementary school children, we asked what one match could burn up. All of the children understood that one match could burn up a piece of paper. But when asked about toys, furniture and houses, the youngest children were not so sure. When asked if a match could burn up a house, less than half of the six-year-olds believed this could happen.[vii]

These beliefs can be deadly when combined with easy access to ignition materials. Many adults are casual about storing matches in the open or in an unlocked drawer or cupboard that is easily reached, believing “out of sight is out of mind.” A child who becomes interested in such materials can seek them out.

In a survey of children in our community, 48% reported they could get matches without asking. And by the time they were 12 years old, 50% reported having played with matches, lighters or other ignition materials.[viii]

Children are unsupervised where adults believe they are safe-- at home. In a survey of adult perceptions of how long children can safely be left unsupervised at home, the average person was comfortable leaving 3-year-olds alone in their bedrooms for nearly 15 minutes; five-year-olds for 36 minutes.[ix]  Yet children need very little time to secure ignition materials and start a fire.


Teachers, Parents, and Firefighters Working Together for Fire Safety

Fire education must start in preschool. It must be developmentally appropriate, and must be designed to make a difference. Simple awareness is not enough. Children need clear rules and specific skills, as described below.

Creating a partnership with local fire departments is a great way to help children learn about fire safety. Here in Rochester, we have developed Adopt-a-School programs that encourage a relationship between firefighters and their neighborhood schools and preschools.

Periodic visits from firefighters is important. Just having them visit to have lunch with the kids and read them a story can be more effective than formal presentations. When children feel comfortable with the firefighters, they will ask questions and express concerns, and are more likely to listen to and follow suggestions.


Teaching Fire Safety

With preschoolers, it’s best to stick to the basics. Start with two simple rules aimed at preventing children from setting a fire:

·        “Matches and lighters are adult tools.” We have found it effective to connect matches and lighters to other adult tools. Even very young children usually understand what tools are. If you ask children what power tools their parents use at home, they’re always eager to list them. They’re usually also quick to admit that adult tools, especially potentially dangerous ones like power tools, are not for children. Emphasize that matches and lighters are also adult tools, and just as dangerous as power tools.

      “Go tell a grown-up” Teaching children that matches and lighters are for adults only isn’t enough. Teach them to go and tell a grown-up if they find such tools lying around, no matter where. Emphasize that they should not pick up these tools and bring them to an adult (you wouldn’t want them to pick up and carry a circular saw, after all), but should tell an adult who will put them away safely. “Tell a grown-up” is effective because it gives children something they can do, not just something they can’t. Children love knowing they “have a job” to do to help keep their families safe. They also love telling their parents something when they know they’re right! This positive reinforcement gets children to cooperate with fire safety rules.


In addition to these fire prevention skills, there are life safety skills that will help young children stay safe if a fire occurs:

  • Exit Drills in the Home (E.D.I.T.H.) We teach kids to get out right away if there is fire or smoke. It’s important not to hide, and to get out and stay out. They must understand they should never come back into the house if there’s a fire, even for a favorite pet or toy. They must tell a firefighter about pets left in the house. Their family should also have a designated meeting place. Ask children to talk with everyone in their family about where the meeting place might be, and practice getting out of the house and going there (see “Reinforcing the message at home” below).
  • Crawl low under smoke. In a room filling with smoke, children should get down and crawl under the smoke. For preschoolers, keep this instruction simple:  “Get down on your hands and knees to help you see and breathe.” Model this skill by getting down on your hands and knees and holding your head up. A firefighter can teach children this skill during a classroom visit, but it’s important to practice with them regularly. One session isn’t enough for them to use this skill automatically if they find themselves in a fire.
  • Stop! Drop! And Roll! Teach children that if fire gets on their clothes, they should 1) Stop! 2) Drop to the ground! 3) Cover their faces; and 4) Roll one way and then the other until the fire is out. Use the words “if a fire gets on your clothes,” rather than “if you catch fire,” which can be too frightening to children and may interfere with learning. Again, demonstrate the skill and help them practice.
  • Go to the firefighter. In a fire, it’s important for children to go to the firefighter, not run away and hide. This rule is best learned through regular visits to the classroom by a firefighter, including showing children how a firefighter looks in full gear. Children can become confused by smoke and commotion during a fire, and the firefighter’s “space alien” appearance can be frightening if it’s unfamiliar.

Professionally developed and evaluated fire safety materials are readily available for use in the classroom. The BIC play safe be safe!® Preschool Program (see sidebar), for example, uses video and a variety of hands-on activities specifically designed for preschool children. It has been shown to increase dramatically the number of preschool children that correctly answered questions and demonstrated skills concerning fire safety. In a comparison of preschoolers before and after receiving the play safe be safe! program, only 35% knew they should “tell a grownup” if they find matches or a lighter, compared to 75% who knew this after the program. Only 3% knew the important “Stop! Drop! And Roll!” skill before the program, compared to 75% after the program.


Reinforcing the Lessons at Home

Let parents know what their children are learning in your classroom about fire safety. Explain that this is important because so many fires are started by children, and many victims of those fires are the children themselves. Tell them about the activities or lessons that their child will be bringing home, such as “Tell a grown-up.”

Reinforce that one of the most important things parents can do to prevent a tragic fire is to keep matches and lighters truly out of reach. Parents may be surprised the first time their child tells them they’ve left out some matches! Many parents can’t imagine their children ever “playing with fire.” They assume their children are as afraid of fire as they are, or are too young to locate or use matches and lighters.

They may also assume that if they use child-resistant lighters, they don’t need to be as diligent about fire safety. Although child-resistant lighters are helpful, they provide only a temporary margin of safety. Given enough time, many children find ways to light them. Lighters of any sort should never be left out in plain sight.

Few parents recognize a potential hazard until the child and the hazard are in the same room at the same time. Matches left out on the counter are not seen as a danger until a child approaches them. Left unattended, a child moves easily about the house and will find and experiment with matches long before a parent notices.

Work with the children to insure that parents install and maintain smoke detectors. More than half of all fatal fires occur while the occupants are asleep. Smoke detectors provide a critical early warning, waking people before they are trapped or incapacitated by smoke. Smoke detectors should be installed outside every sleeping area and on every level of the house, including the basement. Test smoke detectors monthly and change all detectpr batteries twice a year (doing so when changing the clocks for the beginning and end of Daylight Savings Time is a good reminder).

Encourage parents to develop and practice escape routes in case of a fire. E.D.I.T.H. (Exit Drills in the Home) is a national effort to encourage parents to sit down with their families today and make a step-by-step plan for escaping in a fire.

  • Draw a floor plan of the house, marking two ways to get out of every room. Discuss escape routes with every member of the household.
  • Agree on a meeting place outside where everyone will meet to wait for the fire department. This allows you to let the fire department know if anyone is still inside the house.
  • Practice your escape plan twice a year. Have a fire drill, and be sure to practice alternative escape routes. Pretend that some exits are blocked. Make sure everyone in the house can unlock all doors and windows quickly, even in the dark.

Practice is essential to be sure your exit plan will work. You don’t want to discover in the middle of the night that the window you hoped to climb out is painted shut or too small to get through. Working together, teachers, firefighters and parents can make sure that Pam and other young children will be safe, for many more birthdays to come.


More Information About Fireproof Children

Fireproof Children is a national fire safety education and prevention center based in Rochester, New York. With BIC Corporation and others, Fireproof Children helped create the play safe! be safePreschool Program, a multimedia kit including a videotape of four key fire safety lessons, activities and games. play safe! be safe! received the Directors’ Choice award for best curriculum by Early Childhood News. Fireproof Children and play safe! be safe! also received the National Fire Protection Association’s Rolf H. Jensen Partners in Public Education Award.

Every year BIC Corporation underwrites seven play safe! be safe!  fire safety workshops the United States. The workshops are designed for child care professionals and focus on the developmental psychology of children's fireplay and the best use of the play safe! be safe!  education kit. Every workshop participant receives a play safe! be safe!  kit at no charge.

To become eligible for a fire safety workshop in your community, or to learn more about play safe! be safe!, call  585-385-3370, email playsafe@fireproofchildren.com or visit www.fireproofchildren.com. An Internet version of the play safe be safe! card game (for ages 3 and up) is available at www.keepawaygame.com, and the entire selection of  play safe be safe! activities and games is available at www.playsafebesafe.com.


[i] Cole, R., Crandall, R., Bills, J. (1999). Firefighter’s Complete Juvenile Firesetter Handbook, Fireproof Children Company:  Rochester, NY.

[ii] Hall, J. (2001). Children Playing with Fire. National Fire Protection Association:  Quincy, MA

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Rochester Fire Department data, 1985-1993

[v] Cole, R.E., Crandall, R., Bills, J. (1999). Firefighter’s Complete Juvenile Firesetter Handbook. Rochester, New York: Author.

[vi] Glik, D.C., Greaves, P., Kronenfeld, J.J., Jackson, K.L., Safety Hazards in Households with Young Children, Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 18, 1993, 115-131.

[vii] Grolnick, W.S., Cole, R.E.,, Laurentis, L. & Schwartzman, P., Playing With Fire: A Developmental Assessment of Children’s Fire Understanding and Experience, Journal of Clinical Child Psychology 19, 1990, 128-135.

[viii] Grolnick, W.S., Cole, R.E.,, Laurentis, L. & Schwartzman, P., Playing With Fire: A Developmental Assessment of Children’s Fire Understanding and Experience, Journal of Clinical Child Psychology 19, 1990, 128-135.

[ix] Peterson, L., Ewigman, B., Kivlahan, C. (1993). Judgements Regarding Appropriate Child Supervision to Prevent Injury: The Role of Environmental Risk and Child Age. “Child Development, 64”, 934-950.