Changing Human Behavior to Prevent Fires

By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Changing human behavior is the key to reducing the number of preventable fires in the U.S. and Canada because 75 percent of those fires are the result of improper adult behavior. But our history of delivering fire and life safety education in the hopes that people will change their behaviors is not working. So, what will it take?

NFPA 1035: Standard on Fire and Life Safety Educator, Public Information Officer, Youth Firesetter Intervention Specialist and Youth Firesetter Program Manager Professional Qualifications just may have the longest title of any of the published NFPA standards that are applicable to the fire service.

Effective fire and life safety educators must not only have the technical expertise, but must also understand the psychology of their audience.

But aside from that distinction, NFPA 1035 is the guiding document for a fire department and its fire and life safety education programs (Your department does have fire and life safety education programs, right?). The standard’s three levels contain the job performance requirements (JPR) for:

  • The people tasked with delivering existing educational programs (Level I);
  • The people tasked with preparing educational programs and information to meet identified needs (Level II); and
  • The people tasked with creating, administrating and evaluating educational programs and information (Level III).

But is NFPA 1035 Certification Enough?

In response to my post, Fire and Life Safety Education Needs Social Entrepreneurs, that I shared on LinkedIn, my fire service colleague and fire and life safety educator, Tanya Bettridge, shared the following thoughts:

If you don’t understand how human behavior works, you can’t expect to be a catalyst for change.

Today’s fire and life safety educators, regardless of the NFPA 1035 level that they’ve acquired, are still ill-prepared for In order to change their behaviors regarding preventable fires, fire and life safety educators must learn to understand the psychology of their audiences.today’s audiences. NFPA 1035 is great, but it should be considered as “the fundamentals.” Once you’ve got it, your next step to behavior change success is to attend as many marketing workshops, TEDTalks and modern leadership symposia as possible. Sharpen your social media skills. Join a Toastmasters chapter.

Basically, get the NFPA 1035 fundamentals and then head straight outside the fire service and into the realms of marketing, advertising, public speaking, motivational interviewing and social media. There, you’ll learn how humans today, are motivated to act. To make purchases. To be inspired. To change their behavior.

Fire Chiefs you, too, should consider looking beyond NFPA 1035 when it comes to recruitment and training. Your firefighters spend a lot of time learning about fire. How it starts. How it travels. How it behaves. How it reacts and what it takes to put it out.

Shouldn’t we expect our fire and life safety educators to know the same amount about humans?

(Tanya Bettridge is a Public Educator and Administrative Assistant with the Perth East Fire Department in Listowel, Ontario, Canada. She also serves as the Director of Communications for the Ontario Fire and Life Safety Educators).

Formal Education Beyond High School

Another fire service colleague, in reply to Tanya’s prose, Lydia Wilcox, wrote: “I would add to that, go back to school, get a post-secondary [education] degree or even a certificate.  Don’t expect your service [fire department] to supply you with all the education your career success will need.”

(Lydia Wilcox is a firefighter with the City of Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. She also serves as a Director at Large for Fire Service Women Ontario).

I couldn’t agree more with the thoughts and insights provided by both Tanya and Lydia. I’ve written in the past about my own experiences in obtaining my undergraduate and graduate degrees and my completion of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program. I firmly believe that those professional development activities helped make me a better fire officer.

To echo one of Tanya’s points, reducing the numbers of preventable fires and the fire-related deaths and injuries in both the U.S. and Canada will take much more than just the delivery of fire and life safety education programs. The fire service must continually seek ways to change the culture in both countries, a culture that accepts preventable fires as accidents.

Changing Human Behaviors–Starting with Our Own

Preventable fires are not accidents. We no longer refer to motor vehicle crashes as accidents because we’ve accepted the fact that those crashes are the result of improper human behaviors. We, the fire service, must come to a similar place when it comes to preventable fires. Look at the difference between these two statements and the message that each conveys

  • An early morning fire swept through the home of a local family, injuring a mother and her child, and destroying the family’s home. It is believed that the fire may have resulted from fireplace ashes placed in a cardboard box.
  • Fire place ashes that were improperly placed in a cardboard box by the homeowner caused a preventable fire in a local home. The preventable fire caused injuries to a mother and her child, both of whom required transportation to the hospital for treatment of their preventable injuries.

See the difference? The first statement puts the emphasis on what the fire did, while the second places the emphasis on what someone in the home did.

If we truly want to eradicate preventable fires, we must start by using language that clearly identifies the responsible

Changing human behavior about fire is the key element in reducing preventable fires. 75 percent of fires in the U.S. result from improper human behavior by adults.

Fire is not the “bad guy”–Fire is the OUTCOME of improper human behavior.

party; it’s not the fire, it’s the person whose improper behavior created the conditions that enabled the fire to start

Harsh you say? Sure it is, but the behavior of people doesn’t change because of education and public service announcements. It changes when what’s considered “normal” (fires are unavoidable accidents) is replaced by a new “normal” (people cause fires through their improper behavior).

Thus, the new normal would be that people would take greater responsibility for not having a fire, just like they take responsibility for not causing motor vehicle crashes, wearing their seatbelts, and putting their children in child safety seats in the car.

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for FireRescue1.com and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec and his wife of 30+ years now make their home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, rpa1157@gmail.com.