For those not old enough to remember the Peter, Paul and Mary hit ‘Where have all the flowers gone’ it is about not learning lessons from history and therefore repeating mistakes from the past.
I was cleaning out my library this week (unbelievable how much stuff you accumulate) and came across Philip Schaenman et al.’s TriData booklets on public education. There were three of them that I found, published between 1985 and 1990. These were my bibles back in those days when I was a Fire Marshall, so indulge me if I go over old times.
The first book that I saw was International Concepts in Fire Protection, published in 1985, which looked at fire-safety practices from Japan, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. It then compared these countries’ strategies with those in the USA. The first main takeaway from this publication (apart from the USA comparison) was that it’s no use picking a prevention theme that strikes a chord with part of its audience and repeats it over and over again year in year out. We are in Asia/Pacific countries of many people and we need to use different themes for different cities, neighbourhoods and/or ethnic groups. We also need to refresh the entire programme often.
Unfortunately, the issue of targeted prevention programmes is still not being heeded. As recently as this month I saw a generic English-speaking smoke-alarm programme being rolled out over a diverse community of non-English-speaking immigrants.
The second issue I gleaned from the book was the difference in methods by which countries measure the success of their programmes, if they measure it at all. Now move forward to the 2020s and guess what, the same issues still exist. Agencies interpret data in different ways, e.g. if a death occurs from pneumonia a month after a fire injury. In some jurisdictions the death is recorded as a result of fire; in others it is as a result of lung failure. In some jurisdictions suicide by fire is included in the fire statistics; in others it is not.
The second Booklet was the 1987 Overcoming Barriers to Public Fire Education. Of the three booklets I found, this was the most relevant for today. The quote from Gus Welter, Volunteer Fire Council, sums it up: ‘Why is there always time to put out fires but not to teach fire prevention?’ I recommend this as essential reading for any fire service putting together a fire-prevention strategy.
I hope the irony is not missed that 32 years later this book is still as relevant today as it was back then.
The last of the booklets I found was the 1990 Proving Public Fire Education Works. We have just been through a pandemic where millions of dollars have been spent on prevention programmes. In the beginning epidemiologists advised on best practice from previous pandemics and as the virus rolled out across the world, proven strategies in the main were the only strategies adopted. The medical communities have this down pat. Programmes on smoking, skin cancer, obesity, heart health, and the list goes on, all come from defining and proving there is a problem and showing that there is a solution and where there is no solution, undertaking research to find a solution. Evidence-based decision making has become the catchphrase for those who want to implement a new programme and on the other hand research may show that a programme would fail and should not go ahead. The basic premise of this booklet is don’t start a programme unless you have hard proof that it’s needed and that you can measure its success. You also need to have the strength of character to stop the programme if the data shows it’s not working.
In conclusion, we do a large amount of research these days. I am of the view that the literature search at the beginning of any project is the most important step in ensuring we learn from the past and don’t reinvent the wheel. ‘Oh, when will we ever learn?’
There were many working with Philip Schaenman that I would like to acknowledge because their work has stood the test of time. Edward F. Seits, Hollis Stambaugh, Barbara Lundquist, Elyse Camozzo, Anthony Granito, Christina Rossomando, Charles Jennings Carolyn Perroni and the hundreds of agency contributors.
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