For Fire Prevention Week, Harrisville firefighters visit with some 1,000 Burrillville students

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BURRILLVILLE – It’s a robust program that has taught generations of Burrillville students the basics of fire safety, while making it easier for firefighters to work with them, and gain cooperation in the event of an emergency.

Members of the Harrisville Fire Department visited Burrillville elementary schools this week in observation of Fire Prevention Week, talking to roughly 1,000 kids about fire safety both in and out of the home.

“It’s very important to me to be able to get into the schools and reach the children at a young age to teach them fire safety,” said Harrisville Lt. Michael Dutilly, who organized this year’s program.

A national effort started in 1922, Fire Prevention Week is a lifesaving public education campaign observed  in commemoration of the Great Chicago Fire, which began on October 8, 1871. The fire killed more than 250 people, left 100,000 homeless, destroyed more than 17,400 structures, and burned more than 2,000 acres of land.

In 1925, President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed Fire Prevention Week an annual national observance during the week of October 9, making it the longest-running public health observance in the U.S.

Harrisville Fire Chief Michael Gingell noted that his department has participated for more than 30 years, typically with help from other Burrillville fire districts.   

“It’s a group effort,” Dutilly explained.

Much like everything else last year, the program was cancelled in 2020, and in 2021, it has returned in a somewhat limited fashion amid ongoing restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19.

The limitations meant holding multiple assemblies at each of the town’s elementary schools, and keeping the students in their stable pods. While kids are normally able to climb into the fire trucks, touch the equipment and even shoot water from a hose, this year’s batch of fire safety learners just walked around the vehicles, asking firefighters questions.

And other companies that have participated in the past were not called in to help.

“We’re excited to get back into the schools, and we were able to handle everything in house,” Dutilly said. “I think we were still able to deliver the core message of what fire safety prevention is about.”

That message included a focus on the national theme for 2021, “Learn the Sounds of Fire Safety,” with education about the different sounds the smoke and carbon monoxide alarms make. Firefighters talked to the older students about how carbon monoxide is formed by incomplete combustion, and dressed up into full gear for the younger kids to demonstrate that there’s no need to fear them in uniform.

The group showed students how they’re able to breathe fresh, clean air in a smoky environment through a helmet air pack, and discussed not using lighters and matches. Volunteer and per diem Harrisville Fire Department staff helped students learn how to make a fire safety plan at home, including establishment of a family meeting place, and taught them what to do when an alarm sounds.

“We get out,” said Dutilly. “Do we go back in to get things? No. We get out and stay out.”

The firefighters reinforced calling 911 for emergencies and went over what dispatch will ask.

“It’s important to know your address,” Dutilly said, noting the group also had dispatch set off tones, so kids could hear what the experience sounds like for firefighters.

At the end of each assembly, the students visit an aerial truck and have an opportunity to ask questions about various pieces of equipment.

“Kids break into groups and we go over each truck to show what it does,” Dutilly said.

A.T. Levy Elementary School Principal Monica Tompson said she’s grateful for the annual effort to help kids safe in the event of a fire.

“They came to our school and they gave a great presentation to help our students understand what firefighters are like,” Tompson said. “They want the students to be familiar with them, and comfortable with them, if they ever have to see them in their homes. We feel it’s very important for them to recognize what a firefighter looks like.”

The groups also hands out fire hats, coloring books and other special treats for kids.

It’s all part of an effort to help the students understand that firefighters are regular people visiting in their time of need – and to not be afraid. Dutilly notes that most Burrillville students have experienced 5-6 years of the program by 5th grade.

And the lieutenant points out that there’s some evidence it’s working.

“Through the years we’ve had a very low percentage of fires set by juveniles,” Dutilly said. “I think that’s a credit to our fire prevention program here in Harrisville.”

He notes that due to the placement of Burrillville’s schools, on any given day of the week there’s around 1,000 children in Harrisville, and his department is responsible for their ensuring their safety.

“That’s just elementary students,” Dutilly said, noting that educating the kids is a welcomed responsibility.

“We’d talk to students all day about fire safety if they’d let us,” Dutilly said. “We’re happy to do it. That’s what we’re here for.”

The Harrisville Fire Department displays the Fire Prevention Week Sounds of Safety banner.

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