When children are raised to respect fire as a daily and necessary part of life, teaching them about the dangers of flames can be tricky, according to the Seminole Tribe Fire Rescue Department.
“Herbert Jim once called us ‘the fire keepers,’” said Fire Marshal Robert Brown. “So during National Fire Prevention Week we don’t teach that fire is bad. We teach fire safety.”
And because homes within the Tribe’s eight communities dot thousands of Florida acres from Tampa to Fort Pierce to Hollywood, Fire Prevention Week becomes fire safety month – plus one week.
This year’s National Fire Protection Association’s theme, Hear the Beep Where You Sleep, focused on installing smoke detectors in home bedrooms and how to respond when the detector sounds the alarm.
In Naples, one two-hour class on Sept. 23 served about 18 big and little kids. On Oct. 5 in Big Cypress, lessons for Ahfachkee School’s 164 students took nearly seven hours in 30-minute increments. Tribalwide, more than 500 children and teens learned how to react quickly and effectively when a smoke alarm blares.
Tony Billie Jr., of Ahfachkee, called the experience “fantastic.”
“We got to go through a maze and pretend we were in danger in the middle of the night,” Tony said. “It was good practice for us.”
Fire inspectors Susan Hastings, Reagan Bauman and Bill Boss led reservation presentations with Brown and Assistant Fire Marshal Edward Mullins.
On all reservations, teaching areas were equipped with demonstration bedrooms that featured beds, carpets, toys and pop-up walls complete with windows, doors and smoke detectors.
There, children learned how to respond in cases of a house fire when the smoke detector goes off. At the sound of the shrill beeps, they practiced slipping out of bed and crawling on the floor under smoke to exit safely through a door or window.
In a maze obstacle, kids practiced crawling and feeling their way through pitch black turns and household items. Once “escaped,” the children were rewarded with red plastic firefighting helmets and treated to a frank talk about harmful chemicals that are created when household items burn and smoke, how to make a family house escape plan and the importance of naming a family meeting spot outside the home.
Later, children from tots to teens were given up-close views of fire and emergency medical vehicles and age-appropriate glimpses of lifesaving tools and equipment. Each was allowed to sit in the driver/ engineer seat of a fire truck complete with hook and ladder apparatus.
Fire safety events were also held at the Immokalee gym Oct. 9; Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School in Brighton Oct. 14; the old gym in Hollywood Oct. 19 and the community center in Fort Pierce Oct. 30.
In Brighton, firefighters showed off their tools before letting students have some fun spraying the water hose from their truck. The firefighters assisted students in aiming the heavy hose at orange hazard cones to knock them down.
“We remind the students on a regular basis about the risks that occur with carelessness around fire as part of our youth safety program,” Brown said. “The danger associated with fire has lifetime consequences, and we have a passion for teaching the children about those dangers.”
But fire safety is only one lesson the children learn throughout the year. Hastings said classes are offered nearly monthly on a variety of topics that include bicycle safety, poison control and awareness, drowning prevention and pedestrian safety.
Wildlife Protection Field Ops supervisor Michael Lightsey demonstrated how he and other wilderness firefighters can shelter inside aluminum foil, silica and fiberglass fire cocoons if a raging inferno should overtake a fire battle.
“It’s kind of neat for the kids to see the shelter,” said Lightsey after climbing out from under his portable, massive green cocoon. “But the most important thing kids learn from us is to never play with fire.”
House fires rarely happen on the reservations, said Brown, but when a fire does occur it is usually in a kitchen and typically because a resident left a cooking pot unattended on the stove.
“They might leave the kitchen to answer the phone or whatever and when they come back they see a roaring fire,” Brown said.
Hastings said every Seminole child likely had one or two chances to experience a fire safety lesson during October during a reservation special event after school, at a reservation school during school hours or at schools they attend off the reservation.
Tony Billie Jr. said he would not mind another lesson – and more.
“It was 100 percent cool,” he said. “If I ever got stuck in a fire I would be really, really ready.”
Freelance writer Rachel Buxton contributed to this report.