Feike van Dijk (left) and Noelle holding twins Ephraim ("Remmy") and Sabine ("Beanie"). (From right of Noelle) Zephan, Noah, and Able. Zephan and Noah lost their lives in a 2014 home fire.
We are a society that craves a good story. Whether you're getting them via a Netflix series or books, stories permeate our daily life. We binge watch episodes. We get invested in the characters' lives. We want to know how it all ends. If done right, though, a story shouldn't just entertain; it should get you to feel.
Every time I see NFPA's alarming statistics on U.S home fires, I see stories, not numbers. There are many people involved in the more than 350,000 reported home fires occurring each year, each of them with their own story of survival, loss, maybe both. I had a desire to tell a complete story about what follows one of these fires. Rather than only hear about what a home fire survivor has been through, I wanted to feel through their experience.
We've told bits and pieces of this story before via short video vignettes featuring these survivors. While the videos are well done, they only give snippets into their lives. When initially approached by my colleague/friend, Kyle MacNaught, about creating a podcast series, I wasn't interested. While the podcast is in its Golden Age thanks to widely popular, storytelling successes such as Serial or S-Town, I didn't think something similar would translate well into the fire world.
We had a thought, though: what if we show the public something they haven't seen before? What if we take them on a journey of a person or persons impacted by fire, show the full picture of their new normal and how they have pieced their lives together after something so catastrophic? Like other journalists covering home fires, I, too, usually focused on the immediate aftermath: how it started, who had died, etc. Rarely does the public get an intimate look at how people are faring years after a fire. Are they still plagued by their past? Even more heartbreaking, what is their life like after losing someone to fire?
We answered those questions and many others in NFPA's first podcast series, "The Survivors." After having a few initial chats with Feike van Dijk, I knew we had our story's subjects. Injured in a 2014 home fire, the family also lost two of their boys, ages 4 and 2, in the blaze. They've made immense progress in healing their physical and emotional wounds, but memories of that fire are never far from them.
Kyle and I found that out firsthand when visiting the van Dijk family at their Lander, Wyoming, home in 2017. We spent days with the family, their neighbors, their burn care professionals. Via the podcast, we also take a big-picture look at the nationwide effects of home fires, interviewing national experts about how these incidents are negatively impacting the fire service, burn care community, and the public. We also offer solutions to help reduce the effects of these tragedies. We had hoped our podcast told a human story that goes what beyond what you'd find in our fire statistics.
Both of us were honored to learn that "The Survivors" received a gold EXCEL award for educational podcasting by the Association Media and Publishing at their awards ceremony this week. (NFPA's member magazine, NFPA Journal, also picked up a healthy array of awards for its storytelling endeavors.) The award, however, doesn't just belong to us. It belongs to the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, who partnered with us on this podcast; to our NFPA colleagues who offered their invaluable perspectives; and, of course, to the van Dijk family for opening their homes and hearts to us.
Please listen to our five-part series, and help us spread the word about this important story to your friends, colleagues, and town's decision makers. Via the power of storytelling, we're hoping to help you understand and underscore your home fire problem--and its solutions--to new audiences.