By Renee McGivern
When the City of Hopkins participated in a national fire safety pilot program in 2018, it resulted in a measurable improvement in local children’s fire safety knowledge and an increase in the number of working smoke alarms and other safety devices in their homes.
The program, called Sound Off, focused on educating second and third graders and their families about fire safety. The city conducted the program again in 2019 and won a League of Minnesota Cities 2020 City of Excellence Award for it.
The Sound Off program revitalized the existing fire safety education programs of the Hopkins Fire Department and engaged teachers in providing fire safety education. The free program provides clear directions and lessons for firefighters and teachers.
Hopkins leaders gave Sound Off their full support, which helped make it a success in their city, says City Manager Mike Mornson.
“The Sound Off program enhances our public education for the City of Hopkins and helps reduce loss of life and property,” Mornson says. “We hear from many residents who appreciate the service we provided to help them reduce the risk of fire loss and make their homes safe.”
“The strongest key to the program is that it got the children involved with the adults in their homes through the homework,” says Hopkins Fire Marshal Garrett Grniet. “The Sound Off program consists of a pre- and post-test, three 15-minute sessions, and three home assignments.”
The homework assigns the kids to talk to their parents about where the smoke and carbon monoxide alarms are, and what to do if there’s a fire. The children also tell their parents that firefighters are willing to make a home visit and contribute smoke alarms and other devices.
Grniet, who has been a firefighter for 17 years and Hopkins’ full-time fire marshal since 2018, says the teachers’ role in the program is critical. It spans three school days with three activities. Firefighters come into the classroom each day for 15 minutes, and the teachers administer the pre- and post-tests and assign homework.
Elizabeth Barrios is a second-grade teacher at Agamim Classical Academy, a public charter school, and participated in both the 2018 and 2019 programs.
“Our executive director, Miranda Morton, heard about this from the fire marshal, and we were happy to participate,” says Barrios. “We knew many of our families probably didn’t have functioning smoke detectors, and it turns out many of them didn’t know the correct procedures for what to do if there was a fire in their home.”
Barrios says the visits from the firefighters worked well as part of the program.
“I love that the students got to know some real firefighters in the community,” Barrios says. “The students had so many practical questions that they got answered, like how often to change a smoke detector, how many they need in their house, and what to do with pets during a fire.”
A Sound Off home visit was especially significant for a Hopkins second grader with a hearing disability whose home didn’t have the safety devices that matched his need. The department supplied him a fire alarm clock designed specifically for people with impaired hearing. It vibrates and alerts occupants when a fire alarm is sounding.
Through the Sound Off program, the Hopkins Fire Department reached 137 children and provided five fire alarms for hearing impaired children and an older adult. They also installed 77 smoke alarms and 17 carbon monoxide detectors.
While the 2020 school-based Sound Off program was put on hold this year due to the pandemic, Grniet says an online version is available for families in both English and Spanish. Teachers can use it as well, although without the in-person firefighter classroom visits.
“The interactions through videos with students was one year ahead of its time, before anyone could have foreseen the pandemic,” says Grniet. “It provides the information to students without interruption.”
Grniet is now the statewide coordinator for the Sound Off program. He took over that role from the Minnesota State Fire Marshal Division last fall. He’d love to see cities throughout the state implement this successful program and says he is available to answer questions about it.
“We’ve really liked the Sound Off program because it’s well-planned, easy to implement, and measurably effective,” says Grniet. “It encourages kids to engage with their parents and ensures the fire safety message hits home.”
Renee McGivern is a freelance writer.
Background on the Sound Off Program
Meri-K Appy has spent her career focused on injury prevention and fire safety education while working for various nonprofits over the years. Some 35 years into her career, while she was conducting fire safety home visits in a low-income neighborhood, she was shocked by what she discovered.
“I visited one home and a smoke alarm was chirping, so I asked the residents if they knew what that chirping was, and they said, ‘That means it’s working,’” Appy recalls. “In fact, it means the opposite: a chirp means the battery in the smoke alarm is about to die and needs to be replaced.”
In home after home, she discovered the same situation and realized the need for more education on smoke alarm operations.
In 2012, Appy started working with another long-time fire safety educator, Patricia Manzella, to design a schoolbased fire safety program for second and third graders that connected them to firefighters through short classroom lessons and homework. That program is Sound Off With the Home Fire Safety Patrol, often referred to as simply Sound Off.
“I had done many school-based programs and knew that the message about smoke alarms worked best with second and third graders because they are cognitively ready for the information,” Appy says. “Also, in those grades, children are introduced to helpful partners in the community, like firefighters.”
Sound Off is designed to help fire departments work with schools in ways teachers really like, she adds.
Sound Off With the Home Fire Safety Patrol became a program of the Center for National Prevention Initiatives at the Michigan Public Health Institute in 2013. The center oversees all the Sound Off programs in states across the country, and it has managed the more than $4 million in Sound Off grants that Appy has helped secure from the federal Department of Homeland Security.
“Over the years, Sound Off classroom lessons have been highly successful in improving student fire safety knowledge, measured by a quiz given to the students before and after the firefighters give the lessons,” says Appy. Between 2013 and 2017, gains in knowledge ranged from 38% to 46%.
Since 2013, Sound Off has impacted nearly 110,000 second and third graders and their families, and nearly 40,000 new smoke alarms have been distributed.
According to an estimate from the National Fire Data Center, there were 2,790 residential fire deaths and 11,525 injuries in the United States in 2018.
Fire departments with limited resources often focus their fire safety education programs in areas in the city where income and education levels are lowest, where home fires are more likely to happen because the adults living there never had fire safety education.
Sound Off is ideal for this audience without requiring much expense for the city. In some cities, officials have worked with local businesses that have contributed smoke alarms and other devices.
“Working smoke alarms can cut the risk of dying in a fire almost in half,” says Appy. “At highest risk are the very young, the very old, and people in lower levels of income.”