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Fire Education: A Lifelong-Life Saving Project

Bucknell pre-school students learn fire safety measures through use of puppets.

Miranda and Jerome met with 30-plus high energy fans last Wednesday. There was a lot of laughing and hand waving. There may also have been a life saved in the future.

Miranda and Jerome are the alter egos of Susan Orsini and Debbie Showalter, puppeteers and life safety educational specialists with the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. Their fans were pre-schoolers at Bucknell Elementary School who had come to learn valuable fire safety lessons.

Prior to their work with the county's Fire and Rescue service, both Orsini and Showalter were involved with education. Showalter had been a teacher for 15 years and Orsini was a nurse educator. Now they concentrate on teaching the basics of fire prevention and safety.

"We teach all educational levels, pre-school through high school, as well as adult fire safety education," Orsini said. "The sooner children are aware of fire safety the less likely they are to panic in an emergency situation," Showalter said.

On this morning the class assembled on the school's cafeteria floor was composed of pre-school Head Start children. They had come to see a puppet show and learn about fire safety.

Those puppets, Miranda and Jerome, were given life and voice by Orsini and Showalter behind a blue skirted, portable, metal framed, stage they had assembled prior to their audience's arrival. The floor seating brought the students into the action as Jerome appeared and disappeared under, around, and over the curtain to their squealing delight.

When asked how they got into this role, they both said it was pretty much through OJT, On-The-Job-Training. Although Showalter did admit to taking one class in puppeteering.

In addition to the 15-minute show entitled, "Looking For Jerome," the students were lead through a series of exercises emphasizing fire safety. It is designed to teach them what to if they find matches or a lighter, according to Showalter.

This was accomplished by using a tool box and bringing forth tools they can play with and those that are forbidden. The latter were matches and lighters. The lesson, which is also audience interactive, teaches them to always turn found matches or lighters over to an adult and have that adult "put it in a safe place."

FIRE FASCINATION

"It is not so abnormal for a child to have a fascination with fire," Renee Stilwell, a public information officer with the department said. "That is why it is essential to start very young to teach them not to play with matches or lighters."

Last year the program reached 24,000 pre-schoolers, according to Stilwell, who oversees the department's education program. "The show is done no less than once a day and often twice a day throughout Fairfax County," she said.

Another primary element of the pre-school program is getting children used to seeing a firefighter in regular dress and then suited up to fight a fire. "When the firefighter puts on his gear in front of them it reinforces what the child should look for in an emergency situation," Stilwell said.

That morning, as a Fairfax County firefighter donned his gear, Showalter and Orsini verbally walked the students through each piece and explained its use. When the exercise was complete, before them was a live firefighter in full regalia, including mask and oxygen tank.

Known as "Every Step of The Way," the pre-school program began in 1990. "It was formed to address the most at risk portion of the population, the very young and the elderly," Stilwell stated. "Pre-schoolers account for twice the fire deaths as normal and the elderly have a three times higher fire death rate."

But, she noted, "It's for opposite reasons. The young because they are uneducated about the dangers and what to do in case of an emergency ... the elderly often because they can't react fast enough or they are alone and unable to get help."

MANY PROGRAMS AVAILABLE

The department has a variety of programs oriented to different grade levels. For first graders there is "Hector" the talking smoke detector, and for third graders, there is Project Safe. It is presented by firefighters.

"In the Hector program the emphasis is on answering the question 'who are you going to call?' It explains the 911 system," Stilwell said. "In Project Safe there are approximately 25 instructors traveling to 132 schools. The firefighters do this on their days off."

A major effort in fire prevention is the Fire Stop Program, Stilwell noted. "This program is designed to deal with kids that have shown a desire to experiment with fire. It covers the gamut from a serious threat to experimental curiosity.

"These kids come to our attention through the courts, family mental health providers, schools, concerned parents, and investigation. We try to stop the fascination before there is a tragedy."

Working with Stilwell is Lieutenant Mark Stone, also a departmental pubic information officer. His area of expertise is the Community Outreach Program, designed to bring fire safety information to the community at large.

Both Stilwell and Stone pointed out these programs are not limited to public schools. They are available to private schools throughout Fairfax County if requested.