Are we effective?
As a 32 year fire and life safety educator, I confess that I've seen trends come and go -- and that I've seen educators attempt to enhance their messaging in a tremendous number of ways. I confess that I've tried about everything -- and often failed at getting the message out properly.
Many of us are learning, however, that we may be doing more harm than good by trying to over-explain our intent. Do messages that rhyme truly make someone remember them better? Do acronyms help a learner recall the steps? Do catchy messages (e.g. FPW themes such as "Not All Heroes Wear a Cape") help a learner execute the intended actions that we are hoping they retain? My questions are rhetorical. Don't attempt to answer these unless you've done some true evaluations to determine that these are effective in your community.
Is our message understood?
In the past year I attended a task-force/think tank session that opened my eyes to some issues about fire and life safety messaging. In the following paragraphs I will be fully guilty of over-explaining the importance of not over explaining. To start, I ask you to remember the cliché "Don't tell them how to build a watch when someone asks you the time." Our messages are becoming much like this.
Here is an example of my recent observation of another educator trying to teach someone how to plan an exit drill. (Prepare for hyperbole. Or is it?) Get ready, here it comes:
[Takes deep breath] Have working smoke alarms outside and in every sleeping area. Sleep with your door closed. When the alarm sounds, get low to the floor and crawl to the door. Feel the door (back of hand/front of hand/up high/doorknob, et. al). When the door is hot don't open it. Put clothing/towels at the bottom of the door [I always wonder about this one; doesn't smoke rise first?]. Go to your window. IF (I'll talk more about this word in a moment) the window is high, use a flashlight (wave a shirt/pillowcase/blanket/Spiderman underwear, et. al) to get someone's attention. Call 9-1-1 IF you have a cellphone. [Insert bigger breath here] IF your door isn't hot, slowly open it to check for smoke and then proceed outside while crawling low (in/under) to avoid any smoke you might encounter. Once outside go to a meeting place and call for help from (friendly neighbor's house/cellphone/public building nearby). NEVER GO BACK IN.
What is the true expectation of this learner? What is the educator hoping to achieve? If I were to share a learning objective, I would hope that it would look something like this:
Following this [presentation/video/lesson/class], the participant will be able to explain proper actions to take when a smoke alarm sounds.
From this objective, my expectation as a presenter/educator/trainer would be that they "GET OUTSIDE THE HOME." I've learned that it's best to start with the end expectation in mind and define the easiest way to get from start to end. EASY, not COMPLICATED. Most learners, even those in the earliest development stages, will latch known information get to an expectation. Remember when you held the toy out for a child to try to entice them to take their first steps toward you? When they considered their options, they went with the known skill and dropped down and crawled to you. When you hand a one year old piece of birthday cake and a spoon, they often grab the cake with their hand to get it to their mouth. It's easier! My observation in 32 years of teaching safety: the simplest approach toward behavioral change will always be the most effective approach.
Do we reach our audience?
Because every home is different -- and the way that people live in their home differs from culture to culture -- we cannot be expected to teach them every little thing. And cookie cutter messages are rarely the answer to teaching someone a skill. Oh, I know, we call that "best practice." But who's "best practice" is it really? When you consider to stack information, have you not changed "best practice?" Does someone in a wheelchair or using a walker have the ability to do all the things found in the educator scenario above? Do we then add EVEN MORE to the message?
- IF you are in a wheelchair, then you should...
- IF you unable to get to the floor you should...
- IF you have a child with autism, you should...
- IF you cannot hear the smoke alarm, you should...
I find too often that we attempt to ADD to the original bucket of content, rather than tailor a message that the individual can own for themselves. They will have already forgotten the base skills you described, because it didn't apply to them when you explained it.
If this, then that.
That word IF is a challenge, too. So often I hear a fire and life safety educator use the word IF. It may seem a matter of semantics, but my observations have shown me that people react differently to the word IF than to the word WHEN. The word WHEN says something DOES happen. Not that it MIGHT happen. Does the message "WHEN a smoke alarm sounds, GET OUTSIDE" hold more weight than "IF a smoke alarm sounds, GET OUTSIDE (if your door isn't hot, if you aren't upstairs, if you can crawl low)." [Apologies, I added the parenthetical for effect.] When a participant is in a lower learning development stage, the word IF becomes ambiguous to them. Cause and effect may not be part of the learner's aptitude, but we present them cause and effect every time we say "If this... then that."
Who has the answer?
You do, when you [properly] evaluate your programs.
So, does Rich have the answers or the solution to this concern? Not for everyone. I'm simply not that good (or powerful. [insert evil laugh] I do ask every fire and life safety educator, regardless of career, part-time or volunteer status, to challenge your approach if you haven't done so already.
Do you continue to use legacy information just because "we've always done it that way?" Do you consistently add more and more content only because you continually gain more knowledge and feel it necessary to pass every bit of it along to the learner? Or are you teaching to defined objectives, keeping the skills/tasks simple so they can be easily accomplished?
Most important: ARE YOU USING EVALUATION TOOLS TO DOCUMENT THE EFFECTIVENESS OF YOUR APPROACH?
Action Item: Read NFPA 1035: Standard on Fire and Life Safety Educator, Public Information Officer, Youth Firesetter Intervention Specialist and Youth Firesetter Program Manager Professional Qualifications to be sure you're meeting standards for teaching fire and life safety programs. If you haven't done so already, take a class that is built on these standards.