Public Information in the Fire and Rescue services

1.0 INTRODUCTION:    
As our growing population turns increasingly to the community and its many resources, our opportunities for making one-to-one contacts with the public will increase. As the nation keeps enlarging, it has also become more centralised in urban areas where individuals have less opportunities to interact with agency representatives. The task of reaching these public and providing them with accurate information and the ability to participate in the many aspects of fire protection and safety processes becomes necessary. Fire disaster has evolved into one of the greatest human tragedy over the last two decades in the Country.
Unfortunately, the disaster has taken an unusually large toll on the lives and property of people in this country. It has defied all boundaries affecting persons of all categories in its frequency of occurrence in the society leaving in its wake an ever increasing loss of lives and property worth billions of naira.
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation is bearing this huge disaster which is taking a high toll on her resources, both human and natural.
This disaster and its effects are challenging human understanding and management of complex safety conditions which were considered manageable in the past. With the passage of time and increasing knowledge of fire and its attendant consequences, it is becoming increasingly clear that standard operating procedure, will reduce disaster and bring about a better quality of life and property. Fire education is aimed at changing people’s behaviour through awareness and knowledge of fire with its consequences on the lives and properties of individuals.
Educating the populace on fire safety and related emergencies will be important to the management of these challenges. This enlightenment is becoming increasingly important as the end goal will reduce the catastrophic loss of life, properties and natural resources. Hence, informing and educating the public adequately about fire safety and prevention will reduce the outbreak of fire to the barest minimum thereby encouraging the growth and development of the community.  
1.2    What Is Public Information And Education? Public information and education as it relates to fire and rescue services, is a procedure that is designed to promote awareness of hazards, encourage prevention, provide emergency information, and foster good will and support in the community.
 Based on the above knowledge, the goals of public education and information are highlighted below:
Alerting the public about potential impacts and available means to avoid fire hazards.
Providing general information concerning appropriate handling of fire related equipments.
Improving public awareness/understanding of risks involved when fire and other emergencies are not properly managed or handled.
Promoting safety in dwellings, offices, work places etc.
2.0 THE HUMAN PSYCHOLOGY OF PUBLIC INFORMATIION AND EDUCATION
The ultimate goal of public information and education is to change people’s opinion and behaviour with respect to hazards and emergencies.  Thus, it is necessary to note some fundamental things about human beings as it relates to  public information and education.
(i)    Public information and education works best when the public materials and approaches used bring about uncertainty in the minds of the people, causing them to wonder about their environment and to question their safety in it.
(ii)    public information and education is effective when; (a)    it raises questions in the minds of the people, (b)    offers fairly simple answers and (c)    authorities  (Fire Service) or specialist are available to  provide additional information when people seek it.
(iii)    Within a general public, there are diverse segments of people defined by levels of formal education, gender, ethnicity, age, family connections etc., and these defining factors have effects on the level of impacts public information and education have on the people.
(iv)    Human thought process about future events is binary:    It will happen/it will not happen, it will affect me/it will not affect me etc.
(v)    People are more apt to follow an appropriate agenda if they work out a solution or come to a conclusion themselves, with helpful information from specialists.  Most people change their opinion or behaviour when they think their own idea created the need to change.
3.0    PRINCIPLES OF EFFECTIVE PUBLIC INFORMATION AND EDUCATION:
    Between the mid 1980’s and early 1990’s a research was carried out in the United States to determine factors that affects  the effectiveness of public information and education on hazards, and there was a breakthrough.  The results of this research are being regarded as the “immutable laws” of effective public education on hazards.  They are listed below:
(i) Clarity: Complicated phenomena must be clearly explained in non-technical terms.  Experts generally cannot accomplish this, so hire people that have communication skills to work with the fire professionals to craft the words that are to be given to the public.
(ii)     Use varied sources: Information must come from various relevant sources including authorities (Fire Service), technical experts, scientists, Engineers, and from local people.
(iii) Rendering and Repetition of consistent information: The information people receive should be consistent, changes from the past should be explained and repeated frequently through different media and disseminated through varied networks, press, electronic media, community associations etc.
(iv) Use a stream of communications: Messages on TV and Radio are effective, but getting written documents-leaflets, brochures to people in homes, markets, offices etc is better.
(v)     Tell people what to do:    The most important information that can be given to people is to tell them what they can do before, during and after an event.  In the fire and Rescue services, the prevention arm is charged with this responsibility.
(vi) Support people in their search for more information:    If the information and educational effort is working, then you can be sure people will discuss it among themselves and will seek for more information.
(vii) Use words and clear graphics:    Use simple language and support it with graphics and present them attractively.
(viii) Position Additional Information in the community:    People always seek out more information on their own to validate what they have already had. So, position the kind of additional information that people will look for in known places and also inform them where they can find it.
The above listed principles are empirical.  However, there are other principles that will also compliment their efforts, and they are also discussed below:
(i) Partnerships:    Partnerships work better than if only one organization disseminates the information. The fire and Rescue services should partner with high profile organizations in their areas to achieve this.
(ii)  Feature specialists:    Fire Officers with professional competence in relevant areas should be featured in educational programmes.
(iii) Use different ways to communicate:    Distribution of leaflets, send SMS texts, slots on Radio and TV.
(iv) Use multiple Languages:    Public information and education efforts that have been conducted in multiple languages have worked than those that have just used one language.  So the State Fire and Rescue services can use English and the dominant local languages in their States, while at the Federal level, English and the three major languages Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba should be used.
(v)  Tailor Information for special groups:    The general public consist of several groups and classes of people, so information should be tailored to suit these diverse groups.  
(vi) Use a good mix of the verbal and the visual:    The right mix of the verbal and visual ways showing films on videos, works very well with the public.  So verbal information with video clip of a major fire incident will help a long way for the Fire and Rescue Services.

4.0    STRATEGIES FOR PUBLIC INFORMATION AND EDUCATION:    The following strategies should be adopted for public information and education by the Fire Rescue Services;
Branding:     Using distinctive project names and trademark, graphics, logos and catch-phrases, otherwise known as branding, can be an effective method of getting the target audience, to easily recognize any information related or pertaining to what we do in Fire Services.
Printed Materials:    Printed materials can include information on activities or the primary assignment of the Service.  They can be in form of brochures, Newsletters, Flyers, Fact sheets, and/or maps.  Dissemination methods include mailing, hand delivery, placing in Newspapers, and handling out at key locations.
Brochures and Mailers:    Brochures and mailers are printed materials containing pictures/graphics of your Service activities.
Newsletters:    Periodic Newsletters provide details such as contact information of your Service, the profiles of Fire Men who work at a particular station, who the leaders are, schedules of duty etc.  One other important fact that should be noted in the production of Newsletters is the novel idea of establishing a consistent time frame for publishing and distributing the newsletter such that readers know when to look for the next issue.
Press Release:    Press releases are used to announce to the general public the usefulness of fire and its hazardous nature when wrongly used.  The primary targets are the News Media including both print and electronic media.  Copies of releases can be sent to other interested parties such as affected businesses, various States, local and government officials.
Media Alerts:    Media Alerts are more specific and direct than news releases and can be effectively used to notify media about the Service responses, for example the prevailing weather condition at a particular period.
Mass Media:    Outreach to radio, television, and newspapers should be a cornerstone of any public information campaign.  It is important to establish a working relationship with reporters to encourage publicity that is positive and information that is accurate.
Earned Media:    Earned media, or free media such as news stories and fire prevention information, should be used to the maximum extent.  Fire Prevention campaign is typically considered newsworthy by local Media outlets, so it can be relatively easy to get news coverage.
Paid Media:        Paid announcements of an upcoming major events such as Conference of Directors of Fire as we are having here today, National council on Fire etc, may use newspaper, radio or television adverts. Paid advertisements can also be used for progress updates, or to provide information regarding major changes in fire service activities.  Paid advertisement can be expensive, but may be an effective way of reaching a wide audience.
Press Kit:    A press kit containing information the media needs to get the word out about the daily/routine activities of the services allows consistent messages to be provided to the media and helps develop positive relationships with the media.
Business Survival Kit: Business survival kits may contain tips and tactics for success during emergency responses, business survival Videos, and general fire information.  The kits help develop positive relationships with affected community or localities, and stress the importance of meeting the needs of the locality.
Public Service Announcements:  Public  Service Announcements (PSAs) can be used to support main messages of Fire Service activities plan.  PSAs are useful in messages about safety during emergency responses.  A timeline needs to be established to allow for the scripting of the message, recording and distribution.
Information Centres: In responding to disaster related cases, an establishment of an information centre can prove to be a useful strategy to disseminate information and provide a key point of contact for the public.  It is typically located on or near the scene of the disaster spot/area and contains materials such as brochures, videos describing the incident, maps of the area, video cameras, microphones etc.  In fact, this is a place where information as regards the incident is fully processed, analysed and sent out for public consumption.
Service Website:    Fire Service Websites can provide both static and real-time information including general Fire Service information, photographs of various fire incidents recorded, etc.  The Website should provide accurate and up-to-date information, be easy to navigate, and people need to know about it.
Public Meetings, Workshops and Community Events:    Hosting public meetings or workshop gives the community where Fire Service station is located information and serves as an opening to gaining knowledge about what fire is all about.  Events for gaining public attention and information dissemination include launching of new appliances, opening/commissioning of a new citadel of knowledge such as National Fire Academy, Visiting school assemblies, fairs, and informational workshops.
Coordination with Media/school/Business/Emergency Services Visual Information:    This strategy uses videos, slides, and presentations to supplement public meetings, public information centre displays, or press releases for meetings and/or web-based dissemination.  An appeal to the visual sense may help get the message across.
Public Opinion Survey:    These surveys contain sets of question designed to elicit opinion on issues.  Public Opinion Surveys serve as an effective method of determining general public attitudes and to educate the public.

Apart from the strategies earlier highlighted above, one other acceptable way is to increase public education efforts in terms of information to all Nigerians in preventing fires through:

TV campaign via Global TV network.
Posters and Postcards.
Radio campaign.
 
-advertisements will also run at various local radio stations across the States immediately after a significant fire, when people are more likely to hear and respond to the messages.  

Why public information and Education should be carried out:
(i)      People already think they know everything they need to know about fire safety, the campaign must aim to break through that barrier.
(ii)      The public depends on their local Fire Services for fire safety information and advice.
(iii) The public and Industry need to receive uncomplicated information at moments and points of relevance   

5.0    CONCLUSION  
Public information and Education in Fire Prevention, suppression and mitigation is an important tool  that when properly coordinated and used by all Fire Services nationwide will increase the overall performance of the services, increase public awareness on  fire,  promote a good working relationship between the Services and the public, raise the confidence of the government at all levels in the ability of the fire services to create a fire safe Nigeria and turn around the hitherto unsavoury perspective of the Fire Services in the eyes of over 140 million Nigerians.
Continual education of the public on issues of fire prevention and control will equip and embolden the citizenry on how to eliminate the occurrence of fire incidences, and when it happens, what to do during and after the occurrences.

6.0    RECOMMENDATIONS
In the light of the foregoing, the paper observes and recommends as follows:
(i)      That Government (Federal/State/Local) should sufficiently fund the Fire Services Nationwide for the purpose of pursuing and executing its policies on public Information and education.
(ii)      That Private and corporate organizations should be encouraged to partner with various Fire Services in the country in sponsoring enlightenment programmes as it relates to Fire Education and Information.

(iii) That Government (Federal/State/Local) through the Nigeria Broadcasting commission (NBC) should impress it on the Media Houses to make provisions of advertisement slots, at reduced and affordable prices.
(iv)      That GSM Providers should help in disseminating information of the services through SMS freely or at much reduced prices.
(v) That the Fire Services be urged to operate websites where members of the public can access information.

Filed Under: Features

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