Meri-K Appy, President, Home Safety Council

December 2010

About Meri-K Appy
Meri-K Appy is President of the Washington, DC-based Home Safety Council (HSC), the only national organization solely dedicated to preventing the nearly 20,000 deaths and 21 million medical visits that result each year in America from unintentional home injuries. Since joining HSC in 2003 Appy has spearheaded creation of the Home Safety Council Expert Network, offering free materials and resources to the fire and life safety education community, and the new Home Safety Literacy Project, a unique outreach program designed to teach adults with low literacy skills about basic home fire safety and disaster preparedness practices. In 2009, HSC will release Start Safe: A Fire and Burn Safety Program for Preschoolers and Their Families with funding the U.S. Department of Homeland Security/FEMA. A national media safety spokesperson, Appy is a frequent guest on NBC’s TODAY Show and has also appeared on every major network including the Oprah Winfrey Show, CNN, the EARLY SHOW on CBS, ABC’s GOOD MORNING AMERICA, and HGTV. Appy received the Mason Lankford Fire Service Leadership Award from the Congressional Fire Services Institute in recognition of her years of service to the field of fire and life safety education and was named the 2006 Sprinkler Advocate of the Year by the American Fire Sprinkler Association.

MB: Since firefighters visit schools, children must know how dangerous fire can be. Can’t children just be taught that fire is dangerous?

MKA: Yes, children can be taught fire is dangerous, but we have to teach them in the right way for the right age child. A very young child doesn’t understand conceptually the power of the match. Cognitively it’s just not something they can understand. So the answer is to prevent access to matches and lighters, and start at the beginning of the story to teach them things they can understand and add more information a little at a time as they grow and develop. The problem is, in our country, there isn’t enough sustained fire safety and life safety education to tell the story in the right way. Fire services are going into the schools, certainly, but based on a national study the Home Safety Council did a few years back with Johns Hopkins, we know there are only 12% of US fire departments who have somebody assigned full time to fire and life safety education. What this suggests to me is, while there may be many heartfelt attempts to educate the community, there are an awful lot of folks out there we need to get our message to and we need a lot of help.

We need to seek partners in the community who are in the best position to reach our target audiences. For children, this means working with the schools in a very comprehensive way. This gives us the benefit of wonderful teachers there on the ground, working with the students, day in and day out. They can address these issues over time, and take advantage of “teachable moments” as they arise. Unfortunately, these strong school-based partnerships are hard to manage with the limited resources most fire departments have, so most kids aren’t getting the kind of safety education they need. Now, when you pair that with research of what their parents do not know, it’s no wonder there are as many unintentional home injuries and deaths as there are in our county. Many adults in our country lack a basic awareness about what fire can do. They don’t understand how quickly a fire can grow from first ignition to flashover- they don’t know it can take as little as 3 minutes. They don’t know that their children may not wake up from the smoke alarms even if they have them. We have to face facts: if children are to survive a home fire, they’re going to need a grown-up to help. We can’t rely on the children themselves because they may not even wake up. There’s so much more we need to do on all levels to educate.

Within this question, lies a much bigger problem: we’re just not doing enough in a sustained way to help people understand the true nature of fire and prepare them to prevent and respond to it well. We need to rally an army of allies, engaging more people in different arenas to deliver our lifesaving messages – it can’t be the fire services alone doing that.

MB: Mental Health professionals bring experience and interest in research on human behavior. What are specific home fire safety initiatives where this contribution might be helpful?

MKA: I think all home safety initiatives and all fire safety initiatives would benefit from more insight on people’s real behavior and motivations. To emphasize the part of the question that talks about the experience of the professional group, I think it is a challenge to get people in this country to alter their habits; we get set in our ways, especially in our homes.

So to move people beyond what they’ve done day in and day out, when maybe nothing bad has ever happened, takes a lot. Part of what works is repetition and social norming; we have to make our messages clear so that everyone is talking about them. I think professional groups who are perhaps outside the fire arena can help us a lot by embracing and modeling in their own lives this stuff. For example, I don’t know if the American Psychological Association starts its meetings by pointing out the fire exits, or holds their meetings in sprinklered facilities. And I’m sure there are things they would like us to be doing, too. There are probably things we could learn from each other that would be health promoting and more consistent with the messages we’re trying to get everyone else to do. Part of it is just us all being open to changing things based on what matters to our partners. We need to open the tent up a little bit so we’re better able to influence our society by the power of our own personal example as role models.

MB: From the perspective of the criminal and juvenile justice field, what is something preventive we could do to address fire safety and fire curiosity?

Additionally, a lot of people believe firesetting to be a law enforcement issue, but at MatchBook, we’re aiming to bring together different disciplines that are involved in and affected by juvenile firesetting, so we can work together. What type of relationship have you noticed fire services, schools, burn hospitals, juvenile justice and mental health to have?

MKA: Knowing that the juvenile justice system still has a lot of males in leadership positions, one thing is to lead by example and make sure members of the law enforcement community and fire service community don’t fall into the trap of reminiscing about fires they set in their own childhood in a way that conveys to children that this is just something that kids do. Making sure we all are practicing what we preach is really important. What I love about this slice of the problem, is that it is where we all come together. There is such an important role for law enforcement, fire service, mental health, [schools, juvenile justice] to collaborate. Coming out of the silo and joining forces is the most important thing we all can do, including law enforcement.

By the time firesestting gets to be a law enforcement issue, we’ve missed so many opportunities to intervene. So, I look at it as a societal issue, I look at it as a parental issue, I look at it as a community issue and the opportunities are there. Personally, I feel they should be better supported and financed so it’s not an ad hoc approach… so as a nation, we can put together an integrated plan that is comprehensive, multi-faceted and sustained. What we need is an established system that lasts over time, because I think that is what changes things.

MB: Many parents that have children involved with firesetting want their child to tour the burn center and see “all those poor burned children.” What is your opinion regarding the effectiveness of “consequences of behavior/scared straight” interventions?

MKA: For very young children, particularly school age, the Home Safety Council’s policy is to be very positive and non-threatening. We strongly recommend against scare tactics. Even showing burned items, not to mention burned children, is not something we feel is appropriate. Children don’t tend to learn when they’re scared or uncertain or unsettled. So, making them see a really harsh consequence is not going to lead to the behavior change we are looking for. Kids who have been burned need to be embraced and fully integrated back into the mainstream and so there are ways of taking a real world experience and gently helping children understand why that burn might have occurred and how they could work in their own lives to be safer from fires and other things. I would strongly urge folks to seek out the resources from the Phoenix Society. I know they have a new curriculum helping a child to reenter the school environment after a burn injury, which would not only benefit the injured child, but also the other children around. So I’m qualifying that a little bit; there are times when you have to deal with the subject because it’s right in front of you and it helps the children understand, but to just use a scare tactic or show a harsh image because we think it’s going to teach them something is not going to work, and the Home Safety Council does not recommend that strategy.

MB: When are kids old enough to begin to learn about fire safety?

MKA: For fire safety, learning can begin almost from the beginning, but children themselves can’t really begin to understand fire safety and burn safety until about age 4. Before then, they’re re too young to understand very much. This means it’s very important that the caregivers understand about fire safety and other safety matters and that they’re, from the get-go, taking responsibility for the family’s safety and setting the right example. Little ones are going to grow up doing what the adults around them do. Practicing family fire drills from the time the baby comes home from the hospital is really smart because that family needs to be outside and calling the fire department within 3 minutes, and the only way the family is going to be able to do that is if they map out their plan and practice it. So if they’ve got an infant and are on an upper floor, they’ve got to be figuring out what they will do if their primary exit route is blocked, if they can use the window, if they have a baby carrier that will allow their hands to be free while going down the safety ladder.

All of this is an adult role and really an adult responsibility all the way through, especially when the kids are little. For young children, HSC’s programs stick to very basic messages, such as teaching them to know what is hot and stay away from it. We teach them to say “Code Red Rover, Grown-up Come Over”, if they see something that’s not safe.. Rover is our mascot, the Home Safety Hound. He helps young children understand that fixing dangers is a job for grown-ups – the children’s job is to spot dangers and stay away from them. The information about smoke alarms and mapping and meeting place selection is directed to the parents and caregivers, where it should be.

The MB Interview includes questions from MatchBook’s Editorial Board & was conducted by Publication Manager, Morgan Callahan.