The Chandler Fire Department plans to implement a new school fire safety and education program this fall to ensure city schools are inspected annually.
Chandler Fire Department Battalion Chief Tom Dwiggins began developing the fire safety and education program after receiving multiple complaints from teachers about school inspections, which happened every three to four years. Dwiggins said teachers would set up and decorate their classrooms only to find out three or four years later they were violating fire safety codes and have to tear everything down.
He added the fire department inspects its businesses annually and wanted to begin inspecting its schools annually as well. The longer schools go without inspections, the more fire safety rules are neglected, Dwiggins said.
Chandler’s new program comprises two components: teacher self-inspection of classrooms and first- and second-grade fire safety education. Each teacher in the Chandler Unified School District will receive a self-inspection form to complete twice throughout the year. The form is essentially a checklist that the teacher completes and signs to hand over to the city fire inspectors when they come out to inspect the schools annually, said Chandler Fire Education Program Analyst Robin Miller.
The Chandler Fire Department (CFD) expects to train all teachers in fire safety prior to the upcoming school year, Miller said.
The student fire safety education component of the program will come in the form of an educational module supplied to the teachers. Miller said CFD coordinated with the school district to ensure that the module did not add to the teachers’ workloads and was easy to teach. On top of that, Fire-PALs will come out and talk to students twice a year.
The module will cover topics such as home escape, smoke alarms, matches and lighter safety, 911 and the stop, drop and roll rule.
CFD has other fire education programs for various age groups, but this particular education program targets first- and second-graders because this age group is rapidly developing the skills that allow them to take care of themselves and notice danger, Miller said.
“What is ingenious about this entire program … is the combination of the inspections with the fire education,” said Chandler Fire Program Coordinator Deborah Simpkins.
CFD hopes to reach more than 5,000 students with this new program by the end of the upcoming school year.
Dwiggins collaborated with Simpkins to apply for a one-year federal grant from the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program. The fire department was awarded $60,963 from the program, with 20 percent in matching funds paid by the city.
Simpkins said the grant funds original educational videos and other information for Chandler teachers and students, as well as Miller’s research position.
Miller researched school fire safety programs in Arizona cities and cities across the nation with sizes and demographics similar to the city of Chandler. She then said she found information on the best global fire safety practices and came across self-inspection programs with positive results in a handful of European countries.
CFD successfully completed a pilot program with Andersen Elementary over the past nine months. All teachers were educated on the self-inspections and first- and second-grade teachers were also trained for the student education portion. Miller said Chandler inspectors then came into the school at the end of the program and completed inspections, explaining hazards and violations as they went from classroom to classroom.
Pre- and post-testing of the students showed that there was significant improvement in fire safety understanding, with anywhere from a 20-50 percent increase in understanding in the various topic areas.
“Looking in our country, I only found one city that actually did self-inspects and they didn’t couple it as a program,” Miller said. “I personally think (the program) is going to have a really good effect. And from talking with other fire departments that are in similar lines … they have shown genuine interest and support and are anxious to hear the results.”
Simpkins agreed, saying the scope of the program could reach an even broader audience.
“I think it’s likely to have an effect outside of the state also,” she said. “Because it is sponsored through an Assistance to Firefighters grant, they have an entire website devoted to sharing the information on the programs that are developed by agencies that they fund. So when the project is done and we have all the data available about our success, we have the opportunity to write that up, and then the story of what we’ve done can be posted on their page and any fire department can access that.”
Chandler will implement the program with authority provided by a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), an agreement between the city of Chandler and the Arizona State Fire Marshal that allows Chandler to perform inspections of city schools.
The State Fire Marshal’s Office (SFM) is required to complete regular inspections of all public buildings, public schools and some private schools in Arizona, unless a specific city or town enacts an MOU. Arizona has only five inspectors for the state and aims to complete inspections in regular three-year cycles, determined based on the number of inspectors and the number of Arizona buildings they have to inspect.Holly Textor, the public information officer for the Arizona State Fire Marshal, said SFM encourages MOUs between the state and municipalities whenever possible. Chandler’s program will relieve state inspectors of their school inspection duties in Chandler, but SFM will still be reviewing the program regularly to make sure correct safety measures are being taken, she noted. Textor added that when the program is implemented it will demonstrate collaboration between the state and Arizona cities and towns.
• Alyssa Clark is a junior at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Reach her at email@example.com.