AUTHOR: Andrea Vastis

Behavior change with Sparky

Why Won't They Just Do What We Tell Them To Do?!

Sparky practicing according to CDC guidance for proper social distancing behavior in Farmington Hills, Michigan At the start of the “stay at home" orders in Rhode Island, my 81-year-old father continued his daily habit of going to his varied grocery stores to pick up his fruit and whatever was on sale that week. He'd call me from the store saying, “Can you believe Shaw's is out of milk!?” to which I would reply, “This is not a game – stay home!” Fire and life safety educators are often finding themselves banging their heads against the wall, wondering, “What will it take to get people to do what they are supposed to do?”  The fact is, driving behavior change is a complex process under the best and even most dire of circumstances.  Our daily behaviors are rooted in and derived from the interplay of attitudes, beliefs, access to resources, socioeconomics, geography, and cultural norms. Changing behavior, even when motivated to do so, is hard because behaviors are ingrained into our daily lives, have an emotional component (we like our comfort zones), a physical and/or social environmental component, and generally require some form of support to get started. At this time when people are being asked to double-down on their COVID-19 mitigation efforts, fire and life safety educators are maneuvering through emergency response, code compliance and getting their residents to adopt critically important behaviors for disease and home fire prevention.  As part of their efforts, providing accurate and timely information is essential, especially in times of crisis management.  Information alone, however, does not equal action.  To support behavior change we must also address people's perceptions of their personal risk.  Consider those who will admit to having read and/or sent a text while driving.  Most will tell you they know that texting and driving increases the risk of a car crash.  What they often perceive however, is that the risk is increased for the other driver, not for themselves.  People overestimate their perceptions of their driving skills, visual acuity, reflexes, and underestimate the time their eyes off the road making it easier for them to justify what is widely evidenced as risky behavior.  Getting individuals to make change is the cornerstone of our work and involves engaging people as they conduct their own cost-benefit analysis when making decisions.   It's the classic “There's not too much traffic, and I am a good multi-tasker, so I can text while I drive,” conversation that is going on, even subconsciously, in people's brains, that we find ourselves pushing against and prompting them to reconsider their belief system.    Another factor in behavior change is what is widely accepted as the three elements needed to move individuals through change.  Regardless of what behavior change model you use, most agree that critical to behavior change are: A motivator: a reason to do a behavior An enabler: help, support, resources to adopt the behavior A reward: a benefit to doing/maintaining the behavior It's not enough to tell people to keep 6 feet apart, or that they need working smoke alarms and an escape plan.  We need to provide people with valid reasons to do it that they can latch onto. Asking people to prevent infection not just for themselves, but for the elders in their life, their healthcare workforce and their first responders is one way we've seen public health education efforts motivate people.    The amazing work being done by our school and community educators in providing digital learning opportunities, and in local businesses providing free delivery services, are examples of providing resources and support, enabling people to stay home and stay connected.  Tom Malcolm, chief & EMA director (left) and Matthew Farrington, 2nd chief (right) of the Millonocket, Maine Fire Department use persuasive language and visuals to prevent the spread of COVID-19   The reward?  Well, that's the tricky part. It's hard to accept a reward for something that doesn't happen, making “not getting sick” or “not having a home fire” a non-tangible. That's why so many programs have incentives built in. Yes, people should do things for the right reasons, but getting people to change behavior means sweetening the pot sometimes. Kudos to the Coppell, Texas Fire Department for putting together bags of fire safety education materials to deliver to their residents as both encouragement for home safety and a thank you for doing their part.  Whether dealing with emergency issues or our constant struggle to get people to adopt proactive fire and life safety behaviors, it's important that we go beyond information and consider how we are motivating, enabling and rewarding our community members.  Consider how you will use your information and communication channels.   Create the conversation in your social media posts, shape the perception of risk using local data, appeal to the values of your residents through local partnerships (note – the messenger is just as important as the message), and reward and thank your community members for doing their part.   My sincere thanks to all of you out there doing amazing work every day for the benefit of your community.  For resources to support your fire & life safety education efforts, go to and stay on top of NFPA's COVID-19 efforts at Follow us on Twitter @Sparky_Fire_Dog, on Facebook at Sparky the Fire Dog and on Instagram @nfpadotorg to keep up with the latest.
Father and daugher_A. Vastis blog flexing

Flexing to Meet the Needs of Our Audience

 “Necessity is the mother of invention. A need or problem encourages creative efforts to meet the need or solve the problem,” is a quote often attributed to Plato's Republic. While the saying may or may not have originated with Plato, it is an appropriate perspective during this major shift in our daily lives due to Covid-19.    Fire and life safety education is also constantly flexing and innovating out of necessity: Shifting demographics in the US and the globe, rapid changes in technology and information sharing, and the decrease in some hazards and increase in others are just some of the paradigms to which FLS Educators must respond in order to be effective. In my training as a K-12 health educator so many years ago, I was taught to always have a “plan B” method of presenting.  Back then it meant having a back up for my slide or overhead projector. Today it means finding a way to connect via virtual methods as many are using social media to keep the lines of communication open and shifting to on-line instruction. As my daughter's middle school figures out how they will continue instruction for the next three-plus weeks, and families are increasingly housebound, we are seeing amazing examples of fire and life safety educators maintaining contact with their communities. Rebecca Clark, life safety educator of the Windsor Severance Fire Rescue in Colorado has set up a You Tube channel with Firefighter Story Time and short safety videos. “Since all of our public education events were cancelled, and our libraries and schools are closed, we wanted a way to connect with our community,” says Clark. Storytime, in which a local firefighter reads a particular book, is an opportunity to share safety information and spark conversation among family members.  Some of her favorite titles include “Impatient Pamela Calls 911,” “Today I Feel Silly,” and “Arthur's Fire Drill.”  In addition, Clark is promoting the link to NFPA's Home Fire Escape Planning Grid which is also available in Spanish, encouraging residents to download, fill it out and email it to the department.  All community members who do so will be invited to a future ice cream social to be held at the station. In our quest to support the "Informed Public" cog of NFPA's Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem, we need to consider myriad  ways to reach people to create an informed, activated public engaging in appropriate prevention and response behaviors.  While so many are homebound due to Covid-19,  has videos, printable activities, and downloadable Apps such as Sparky's Brain Busters to fill the time with educational and fun activities.  If you're looking for a lesson-based approach, Sparky School House has lesson plans, e-books, music and videos to supplement at home learning activities.  So “spark” some creativity with your fire and life safety efforts, and use the resources at hand whether in your living room or the office, to put some fun and learning into your “Coronacation.” Follow us on Twitter @Sparky_Fire_Dog, on Facebook at Sparky the Fire Dog and on Instagram @nfpadotorg to keep up with the latest.
Happy Birthday Sparky! 2020_BLU_edited

Sparky is older than you think, and there's a lesson in that

This Wednesday, March 18 marks Sparky the Fire Dog®'s 69th birthday.  Sparky plays an important role as both a mascot and cue to action within NFPA's mission to eliminate loss of life & property from fire, electrical and related hazards.   Indeed, Sparky encourages the “Informed Public” cog of our Fire and Life Safety Ecosystem, to assure people are engaging in appropriate prevention and response behaviors, making personal investments in safety, and holding their government officials accountable.  While Sparky is truly ageless and timeless, as a 69-year old, he is also a Baby Boomer, offering insight into a major need for Fire & Life Safety Educators – a way to reach varied audiences with tailored, relevant, and accessible information and resources. The Boomers are an especially unique generation as they have participated in some of the most dramatic technological changes in society.  They are the ones who went from two cups and a string as a telephone, to using their smart phones to respond to “Ok, Boomer” remarks on social media.  Every day, 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 in the US.  By 2030, all Boomers will be at least 65 years old.  While they will be older and wiser, they will still need us for their changing fire & life safety needs including increased risk of falls, medical complications from chronic conditions, and increased risk of death/injury by fire.   It is imperative that we in the world of Fire and Life Safety Education know our audiences not only in terms of their demographics and data-informed risks, but of how they consume their information.   Flyers and brochures alone won't cut it.  Unless we do our diligence to learn about our audiences – who they trust, how they communicate with each other, and how they want their information, we will still struggle to get full reach and scale of our programs.  My own Gen Z kids, for instance, are happy to remind me (a Gen X/Boomer cusp) that Facebook “is for Boomers” and that neither they nor their friends are doing anything on Facebook. The Public Education Division at NFPA is continuing to find ways to support your efforts to reach people across the lifespan. and offers a variety of lessons, games, apps and videos for children and their families.  The Remembering WhenTM Older Adult Fire & Fall Prevention Program provides education, tools and resources for communities to prevent and intervene with their older adult residents.    Our social media efforts are targeting a greater variety of audiences with tailored messages across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and our Public Education pages on contain numerous resources that can be tailored for your needs.  Sparky's birthday is a great time to look at your fire and life safety programs and consider who in your community could use some updated information and resources to help them lead safe and healthy lives.  And, since so many are now stuck at home for the next few weeks, consider throwing a Sparky Birthday Fun party with all the trimmings.   Follow us on Twitter @Sparky_Fire_Dog, on Facebook at Sparky the Fire Dog and on Instagram @nfpadotorg to keep up with the latest.
Kennewick blog image

Kennewick, WA fire department finds opportunity to reinforce importance of home escape planning and practice

Photo courtesy of KEPR-TV/CBS I recently came across a news story about four people who safely escaped a fast-moving fire in their Kennewick, WA home. Working smoke alarms were credited for awaking them in time to get out safely. It's always great to hear stories about smoke alarms alerting people to fire, and I'm always grateful when local news outlets highlight their life-saving impact. But here's where this new story differed from most others. It addressed another vital part of home fire safety that's often overlooked: home escape planning and practice. While I'm appreciative of the KEPR-TV news reporter who included this information in the story, I'm particularly thankful to Battalion Chief Tod Kreutz of the Kennewick Fire Department, who clearly made a point of highlighting the critical importance of home escape planning and practice. Here's an excerpt from the article: “He (Kreutz) says they're still not sure why the man was forced to break the glass but says it shows the importance of planning ahead… The battalion chief is reminding families about the importance of having a plan in place, saying it's nearly as important as a working smoke detector. He recommends reviewing everyone's escape routes and your designated meeting place at least once a year.” The story goes on to provide a series of home fire safety tips and recommendations. As public educators in the fields of fire and life safety, we know today's home fires burn faster than ever, leaving people with a minimal amount of time to safely escape from the time the smoke alarm sounds. While smoke alarms are surely the first line of defense in a fire, knowing how to use that time wisely takes advance planning and practice, and can make the difference between life and death in a home fire. This year's Fire Prevention Week campaign, “Not Every Hero Wears a Cape. Plan and Practice Your Escape,” serves as an ideal platform for communicating these messages in the months ahead. Finding opportunities to promote home escape planning and practice, whatever the circumstances, is incredibly valuable; its importance can't be overstated. I applaud Chief Kreutz for capitalizing on a local news story to do just that.
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