To Install, Or Not To Install

By: Tanya Bettridge, Guest Blogger, Public Educator

The number of smoke/CO alarms, that are either given away or outright installed by fire departments in communities across the planet, shocks me. The fire service tends to revolve the “install or not” conversation around the issue of liability; I prefer to look at it as “what are we trying to address?”

Anyone who has kids, will likely tell you that at some point, their kids will make a mess. Whether it’s a toddler with toys or a teenager with a floor of clothes, at some point all kids are messy.

As a parent, you can choose to clean up that mess or you can have the kids clean it up themselves (with or without help). Each choice teaches the kids who takes responsibility for current – and future – messes.

The purpose of public education is to change undesirable behaviours, reward desirable ones and inspire people to develop a proactive attitude about fire safety… essentially, building a fire safe community . Does your smoke alarm program do that?

Photo Source: City of Calgary Fire Department

To me, if your fire department gets a boatload of alarm donations and uses them in an installation program, it may not be serving the purpose of public education. You’ll also be raising the likelihood that you’ll be re-installing alarms in the same homes ten years from now. In that case… did you really educate anyone?

Before any FDs or alarm manufacturers jump all over this… hang on a minute. There are ways of doing programs that result in current – and future – compliance. In fact, your community and stakeholders will love it.

IDEA 1 – COMPLIANCE PRIZE

You arrive at a house; they let you inside, you count the alarms, test them, and discover that this is a fully compliant home. What’s their reward? The non-compliant house next door got a free alarm (or 2,3..4), and this homeowner gets… nothing?

Let’s reverse this trend, shall we? “Compliance Prize” can be anything – a free pizza, a coupon for free batteries, a discount card for a local business (restaurant, store, service, etc.) or maybe it’s a free car wash at the fire hall next Saturday. Maybe they’re entered in a draw for a big prize, or they get a discount on a fire extinguisher. Whatever you can think of that is as good as “cash” – a way to reward ideal or desirable behaviour.


Since gossip spreads quicker than wildfire, word will get out that the fire department rewards compliance; that compliance is as good as cash. My favorite prize that I’ve heard of, is a “dinner at the fire station” – hosted, prepared and served by firefighters. It’s the kind of prize you can’t buy and will create lasting memories; not to mention, it’s relationship-building.

IDEA 2 – CORRECTION PRIZE

When your personnel install alarms, the homeowner has invested nothing. He or she has not spent money on an alarm, dedicated time to installing it, nor do they care if it works because they have no ownership of it. In fact, you may have encouraged them to care less about fire safety, since your staff will care about it for them. As a result, it is seemingly more rewarding to be NON-compliant. We certainly don’t want that!

A Correction Prize is an incentive that you can give to reward someone who becomes compliant. Instead of installing all the alarms they need, provide them with coupons to get those alarms at a local business (manufacturers/sponsors – that means supplying coupons instead of alarms). The coupon could be a 2-for-1 deal, or a percentage discount, or even for a free alarm. In any case, it’s important that the resident be the one to get, bring home, install and test their own alarms.

If the liability of knowingly leaving a home unprotected is a concern, provide battery-operated “loaners” and give the residents a few days to replace them. Let them know that someone from the department will return to get the loaners. Have them sign a form or waiver agreeing to this. If at the return visit, you see the homeowner did as instructed, provide them with some form of a Compliance or Correction Prize and thank them for doing the right thing.

IDEA 3 – DOOR PRIZE

Some fire departments struggle just to get in the door of many homes. Why should they open their door to you? What have you done about it?

Step 1 – Promotion. Get the word out that the fire department is coming on which day between X and X times.

Step 2 – When creating the promotion, include an “Open Door Prize” – let residents know that they will get something, just for allowing their alarms to be checked. Maybe it’s a ballot for a big draw, or a coupon for a local business. Maybe “every 10th door” gets a free fire extinguisher. Maybe they get entered to win that “dinner at the fire hall”.

Step 3 – Ensure staff are prepared to do some social media during the door to door event. Ask residents who got a door prize if they would pose for a selfie and allow the FD to share the photo. Create a clever hashtag that can be used during the event. Invite them to use their own smartphone to do the same and let them know about the hashtag.

A Program’s Purpose

If your fire department currently has an installation program, consider modifying it so that it can fulfill the purpose of public education. Instant compliance via FD-installed alarms doesn’t affect change in the resident or homeowner’s behaviour. It also doesn’t inspire long-term compliance or build a fire safe attitude.

The general public seems to view the fire department as the ones who will “save them” in every way. They believe firefighters will rescue them from their burning home within seconds of calling 9-1-1, so they don’t have a home escape plan or worry about their smoke alarms.

In the install program communities, many citizens have built the belief that it’s the fire department’s job to supply and install smoke alarms, so why bother replacing batteries or expired alarms? These perceptions can not only create a burden on the fire department, they can lead to dangerous, even fatal decisions.

As parents, how long should we clean up after our kids’ messes? I certainly don’t plan on cleaning my kid’s room when they’re 20… 30… 50… I’d rather educate them on the importance and benefits of a tidy lifestyle and reward them when they adopt it.

As a fire department, consider implementing a program that promotes and rewards the behaviours you want see from your residents. A program that not only invites stakeholders and alarm manufacturers to be involved, but that also promotes the businesses in your community.

When it comes to smoke alarm programs, do you want your community to be compliant today, or fire safe and compliant for life?

This post originally appeared June 8, 2017 as a LinkedIn article authored by Tanya. It is used in its entirety here with her permission.

About the Author

Tanya Bettridge

Tanya Bettridge is a Public Educator/Administrative Assistant for the Township of Perth East, Ontario, Canada where her duties include: administrative support and public education for the Fire Department; website maintenance/administration: municipal street addressing; fire safety/public education; author/editor for newsletter and e-news; customer service; and emergency management roles. She also currently serves as the Director for Communications for the Ontario Fire & Life Safety Educators. To learn more about Tanya and her unique spin on fire and life safety education communication, check out Tanya Bettridge is a Fire and Life Safety Educator You Should Know

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

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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.