Keeping Kent safe, one preschooler at a time

Sasha Parker

It has been more than 15 years since the city of Kent lost a resident due to fire-related injuries. But, at 2:05 a.m. June 14, 20-month-old Alyssa Staples was pronounced dead after being severely burned when an apartment caught fire June 13.

The fire started when Alyssa’s five-year-old brother set the loveseat on fire while playing with a grill lighter, said Capt. John Tosko of the Kent Fire Department.

Police Sgt. Sam Todd ruled the fire accidental; however, some Kent firefighters believe the department’s fire safety school could have helped prevent the fire.

The program starts in preschool and ends in fourth grade. It has been in effect for more than 10 years and teaches safety and fire prevention methods to elementary students.

“Being at (the brother’s) age, he’s at the point where it’s kind of hard to determine if miseducation or curiosity led to the fire,” said Lt. Patrick Edwards, fire prevention specialist. “Did he go to preschool or kindergarten? If not, then the program definitely could have helped.”

The younger children’s curiosity is what makes them great candidates for fire safety school, Edwards said. “We try to educate the children about the dangers of fire to prevent hazards.”

The program was redesigned this year to eliminate repetitive stages in the program.

“We’re trying to create an environment where the students get acquainted with us gradually,” Edwards said. “The whole process builds on itself until we reach the grand finale.”

In preschool and kindergarten, the students become familiar with the firefighters and the equipment they use.

“We don’t wear air packs at this point in the process because they might scare some of the children,” Edwards said.

In first grade, Edwards and the fire prevention team teach the stop, drop and roll technique to the students.

The fire department invites the children to the station for tours and hands-on experience during second grade. This is the first time students get to see the firefighters in full uniform with air packs.

In third grade, the program shifts to focus more on home safety and hazards. The children are taken through a trailer where they learn how to crawl under smoke and recognize common fire hazards around the house.

The program’s final step occurs in the fourth grade, when students are asked to come up with home escape plans. The fire prevention team encourages the children to go home and practice their escape plans with their families.

By practicing escape routes with their families, Tosko said the children are increasing their chances of survival during a fire.

The fire prevention team also uses its interaction with the children as a way to teach local parents fire safety, too.

“Most of the fire safety information for adults comes from the information we send home with the children,” Edwards said. “It’s harder to reach the adults because we don’t have their focused attention like we do with the kids when they’re in school.”

Sometimes problems occur when a student’s home life is not conducive to the safety programs taught at school.

“Occasionally, you have one student that goes astray,” Edwards said.

For those students, the fire department uses a more concentrated program.

The Individual Fire Safety Education Program is designed to educate children who are fire starters and their parents. The program has been in place at the Kent Fire Department for almost 15 years.

The program conducts separate interviews with the child and parents to determine the cause of the problem.

“A series of questions are asked during the interviews, and a point value is assigned to each answer,” Lt. Craig Peeps, program team member, said. “We use that score to determine if the child fits into the program, or if professional help should be pursued.”

After the interviews, four to five weeks of different educational processes are used to teach fire safety to the child and his or her parents.

“I think the parents learn as much as the kids do, and this is a great opportunity to get fire safety into the entire family,” Peeps said.

He also said that the program has proven to be very effective, citing the fact that they haven’t suffered any repeat offenders thus far.

The Kent Fire Department is currently working on a program with the Kent State Fire Department. This program will be catered to college students and will focus on fire prevention and safety on campus.

Contact city and courts reporter Sasha Parker at [email protected].