Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on March 1, 2018.

Not Clowning Around

Arizona fire officials make the case for clowns, puppets, and other fun characters in public safety education


Keith and Tanja Tanner are serious about clowning around in the name of safety. And they want to make sure the practice doesn’t go extinct.

Keith, a fire marshal in Arizona, and his wife, Tanja, a member of the state’s fire service, were among the 115 participants in this year’s Arizona Fire and Burn Educators Association’s annual Risk Reduction Through Education and Characterization Conference, held in January in Bullhead City, Arizona. The event, which attracts firefighters and other public safety officials from across North America, is considered the premier destination for those looking to learn and share characterization methods for public safety education, methods that can include anything from donning clown costumes to putting on puppet shows to dressing up like famous movie characters.

The conference has been held for more than 30 years and typically includes classes on make-up application, stage presence, and set design, alongside seminars on NFPA’s Remembering When™ program and community risk reduction. Flower the Clown was a special guest this year, as were two burn survivors of a college dormitory fire.

The Tanners have attended the conference since the 1990s, and first met at one of the events. “In my experience, educational characterization has been the most effective thing we’ve ever done in teaching fire and life safety,” said Keith Tanner.

Started in 1987, the conference once drew 200 to 300 attendees. But in recent years, attendance has waned—likely a result of the financial stresses facing public safety departments nationwide, forcing them to prioritize more traditional training over opportunities like educational characterization. In 2013, the event had to be canceled because of a lack of interest.

For advocates of the practice, though, it’s a vitally important part of the field that can be an effective way of reaching impressionable audiences. “Standing up in front of 300 students, you’re gonna have to hook them with something,” said Tanja Tanner. “Just a uniform doesn’t do it anymore. So you have to be really creative with how you’re teaching.”

Keith Tanner has the evidence to back it up. In the early 1990s, he was a member of the Round Rock Fire Department in Texas, where the community had a big problem: Children were playing with matches and, sometimes intentionally, setting fires. “Kids were setting couches on fire with their dads sleeping on them!” he said. But after his department started doing educational characterization events, the incident rate of children starting fires “took a nosedive,” according to Tanner.

While attendance at the Arizona conference isn’t what it used to be, the numbers are higher than they were a few years ago, an uptick likely due to efforts to make the event more broadly appealing. Part of those efforts was to offer more traditional public education classes at the 2018 conference, such as one on NFPA’s Remembering When™ program, which teaches fire and fall prevention for the elderly.

Karen Berard-Reed, a senior project manager in NFPA’s Public Education division, attended this year’s conference as a presenter, and said she was pleasantly surprised by how balanced attendees’ focus was between learning characterization techniques and accurate fire and life safety messaging, for which she was able to point attendees to a number of NFPA resources. “From NFPA’s perspective, characterization paired with effective messaging—and these folks made sure their shows were driven by accurate messaging—can be a great way to deliver fire and life safety education,” Berard-Reed said. “In any learning experience, it pays to set the scene with an engaging hook, and effective characterization aims to do that.”