By DONNA WINCHESTER
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 2000
ST. PETERSBURG -- Rachel Fletcher could hardly contain her excitement when her mother picked her up at school last Wednesday. She was bubbling over about the firefighter who came to Pasadena Fundamental School, 95 72nd St. N, and took her class on a special tour.
Rachel told her mother she had been inside a trailer set up like a real house that filled with smoke so thick she couldn't see across the room. She told her about how the smoke made her eyes watery and about how the loud noise made by the fire alarm hurt her ears.
She said she would have been really afraid if the fire had been real.
Before they got home, Rachel had made her mom promise they would have a fire drill. By the time she went to bed, the 7-year-old had mapped out their house, showing all the doors and windows. She had devised a fire escape route that even detailed her family's "safe place."
Rachel's enthusiasm was generated by a visit from Florida State Fire College's fire safety house. The travel trailer, made possible by a $32,000-grant to the college from the Allstate Foundation, came to Pasadena Fundamental for its second Pinellas County school appearance.
The trailer houses a working kitchen, a living room and a bedroom. A smoke generator operated from a closet-size control room makes it possible to fill the trailer with smoke during the demonstration.
According to Kathy Thomas, Allstate's communications consultant, the Florida State Fire Marshal and the Florida Professional Firefighters teamed up with Allstate to outfit the fire safety house. They timed its completion to coincide with fire safety month in October.
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The safety house is stored at the fire college in Ocala, but Thomas said it's available at no charge to any Florida fire department. The college provides the safety training and individual fire departments provide insurance and a truck to transport it.
St. Petersburg Fire Department firefighter Jim Barr said his department has already gotten a lot of use from the fire safety house, staging demonstrations for neighborhood associations, church groups and a Boy Scout troop. He is especially interested in bringing the trailer to elementary and middle schools.
"We can go out and talk to a group of adults and they'll just shrug it off," he said. "But when we talk to kids, they go home and tell their parents."
Barr, 32, gave the children a 30-minute lesson on fire safety before leading them on a tour of the trailer. He began by talking to them about what Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa all have in common -- candles -- and how they can practice fire safety during the holidays.
He told them that if their families don't already have a fire escape plan, they should ask them to make one. He explained that under no circumstances should they ever go back into a burning building, not even to rescue a puppy or a kitten. He also explained the importance of having a meeting place outside the house so their parents will know they're safe.
Barr suited up in his fire gear, telling the kids not to be afraid of firefighters even though they may look scary. He had them recite after him: "Don't run, don't hide. Come to us." Then he took the 69 children, in groups of 10 or 12, through the trailer.
As they moved through the house, Barr pointed out potential fire hazards. He also noted the smoke alarms and fire extinguishers. In the living room, he asked one of the children to demonstrate a 911 call on the practice phone.
While they were in the bedroom, Michelle Poulin, the fire department's public education specialist, filled the living room with smoke. The children knew what to do because Barr had told them earlier how to react in a burning building. Dropping to the floor, they felt their way to the trailer's back window on their hands and knees. Barr demonstrated a second-story rescue, helping each child climb out the window and down a ladder attached to the trailer.
When they were all safely outside, Allstate agent Ed Birdwell distributed fire safety coloring books to the children, imprinted with "Nine Rules to be Cool." He gave the three second-grade teachers packets containing deputy fire marshal certificates, refrigerator magnets for emergency numbers and graph paper for the children's fire safety plans.
Birdwell explained there are a lot of fire prevention materials available to teachers. He hopes that parents will see the materials their children bring home and start talking about fire safety.
He said fire escape plans are like wills.
"People know they need one, but they don't plan ahead," he said. "They know they need a fire escape plan, but if they've never had a fire, they don't always have a plan."
Tina Galloway, one of Pasadena Fundamental's second-grade teachers, went over the materials with her students after the demonstration. She asked them to write thank-you notes to Officer Barr telling him what they learned from his presentation.
"They learned a lot of things they didn't know before," Mrs. Galloway said. "I don't think they understood what could happen in a fire. They've never talked about some of these things."
She believes the hands-on learning the children received is more effective than hours of discussion. She and Barr believe lives may have been saved as a result of the fire safety house's visit to the school.
Like Rachel Fletcher, 7-year-old Marielle Rankin told her parents what she learned, but she planned to share the information with her grandmother, also. She said her grandmother has a fireplace and she lives alone. Marielle wasn't sure if she has a fire escape plan.
If she doesn't, she will have one soon. Marielle will be seeing to it herself.
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