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Firefighters spread the message
Fire prevention month means puppets, stop drop and roll
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Bryan County Fire Marshal Jason Blalock greets enthusiastic students at Richmond Hill Primary School on Thursday morning as part of a joint effort by county and city fire departments to teach youngers and others about fire safety and prevention. - photo by Jeff Whitte

The curriculum for about half an hour Thursday at Richmond Hill Primary School covered the basics of fire safety, including how to crawl under smoke and stop, drop and roll.

The instructors were firefighters with Bryan County Emergency Services and the Richmond Hill Fire Department, with a few puppets and some clowns thrown in the mix for good measure.

And as icing on the cake, students got coloring books, fire helmets and a close-up look at two of RHFD’s shiny red fire engines.

So maybe the only question left unanswered afterward was this: Who had more fun, the kids or the firefighters?

Kindergarten student Clayton West said he had a great time, and his teacher, Vikki Leahy, said so did the rest of her class, one of many to watch the presentation.

 “They had a blast. The kids loved it and they learned a lot,” Leahy said. “We teach them about fire safety for an entire week, but they have such a great time when the firefighters come out. They put on such a fabulous show. It’s such a treat for the kids and for us.”

Ditto firefighters.

“Oh yeah, it’s great. We love it,” Richmond Hill Fire Department Sergeant David Williams said. “We look forward to doing this every year.”

Williams could have been speaking for Bryan County Emergency Services Deputy Chief Otis Willis, who said standing in front of a bunch of school kids is one of the most coolest things county firefighters do each year.

“It’s very rewarding,” Willis said. “For firefighters, seeing the smiles on those kids’ faces in the audience helps even out some of the bad things we see in this job sometimes. And if at the same time we can teach a little fire safety, a little fire prevention, and something good comes out of it, that’s great.”

The good news for firefighters is they’ll be doing more outreach in October, at schools, at churches and senior centers – just about anywhere they can, all to help spread the fire prevention message as part of Fire Prevention Month.

In fact, not long after BCES firefighters David McCauley, Denise Youmans and Victoria Pape finished their puppet show Thursday, they, Willis and Bryan County Fire Marshal and part-time magician and master of ceremonies Jason Blalock packed up the puppets and various other gear and headed to Pembroke to give a similar presentation to the kids at Bryan County Elementary School along with the Pembroke Fire Department. Not far behind were the clowns, Firefighter Hammie and Firefighter FunnyFace – in reality volunteer firefighters Helen and Victoria Wheeler.

Staying behind to continue the presentation were Williams, who along with Lt. Michelle Meacham and Firefighter Michael Cooper stayed behind to teach kids fire safety while also showing that even though firefighters in all their turnout gear may look like something out of Star Wars, they’re actually among the good guys.

Though geared for kids through song and jokes and magic and puppets, it’s a serious message. Not long ago, a fire that burned an apartment at Plantation Apartments was determined to have been started by a kid playing with either matches or a lighter, authorities said. Nobody wants to see that happen again.

“Basically, we’re trying to get them at a young age to appreciate fire, both the utility of it and the dangers of it,” Williams said.

And it’s a team effort, said Willis, noting that just as firefighters at BCEDS, RHFD or PFD will respond to help one another through mutual aid agreements in times of fire or emergency, they’re working together to try and keep fires from starting.

“We’re a tight-knit group. And through this maybe we can limit fires and limit people getting hurt,” he said, noting reports of house fires and fire injuries are down nationally and locally.

But though it’s fun, firefighters take the presentations seriously and put a great deal of effort into their stagecraft.

Volunteer firefighter Tim Stillwell of Pembroke built a puppet stage that not only looks a lot like a miniature fire truck cab complete with working emergency equipment, it also was made to fit in the department’s trailer so it could be towed to schools and other places.

Meanwhile, though the puppet show comes with a script and recorded dialogue, Willis said Blalock and the other firefighters adapted it for local audiences – and it resonates with local kids, for sure. At Thursdays’ presentation,

Willis credited Bryan County Emergency Services Director Freddy Howell, who also serves as county fire chief, with working to get funding and donations to help county firefighters do more outreach, and Howell was recently named the Association of Georgia Fire Chief’s Fire Chief of the Year at least in part because of his efforts to better educate the public on fire safety and prevention.

And they are considerable, whether at BCES, PFD or RHFD. At Tuesday’s meeting of the Richmond Hill City Council, Richmond Hill Fire Chief Ralph Catlett gave council members a list of what the RHFD had up for October with regard to fire prevention.

All but about a dozen days are booked up, with firefighters working everything from an event this weekend called “Eagles with Charlie” to the Richmond Hill Community Blood Drive on Tuesday – “fire personnel will provide sphaghetti dinners for all donors plus blood pressure checks, flu shots, car seat checks, sign up for smoke detectors, fire truck displays and the bounce house,” read Catlett’s list. There was more, of course: the upcoming Seafood Fest to taking kids on tours of fire stations to doing blood pressure checks for seniors and setting up a bouncy house at a day care, or handing out candy on Halloween to kids in subdivisions.

Thursday night, BCES firefighters gave a presentation to the Special Needs Activities Program at South Bryan Recreation, and Willis said the county is also encouraging kids to color fire-prevention-themed pages sponsored by McDonald’s and The Ice Cream Stop and take them by both places to get free ice cream or French fries, depending on the location.

“Both McDonald’s and The Ice Cream Stop have been overly gracious in allowing us to put their names on our pages, and we really appreciate that,” he said.

Whatever the method, the effort is important to teachers such as Leahy, who said her students are “like little sponges, they soak everything up,” she said. “They’re going to remember this, and I’ll have them writing about it all day and drawing pictures of the fire trucks.”

As for the kindergartner West, who seemed about as thrilled to see a reporter as most folks, meaning not a lot, he said both enjoyed and learned from Thursday’s presentation – though his first answer to the question of “what did you learn?” was actually “Meerkats.”

But after some help in translation from Leahy, who finished the interview, West set the record straight.

“I learned to stop, drop and roll,” he said. “That means stop when there’s a fire, drop and then roll. And I learned to crawl under smoke, so you can get out easily.”


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