Money & Business

Fire Protection Group Adapts to Year-Round Wildfire Season

By / Dec 15, 2017 A night-long exposure photograph of the Santa Clarita wildfire in California. (FrozenShutter/E+/Getty Images Plus)

From translations to tweens to Twitter, the National Fire Protection Association has been finetuning its communications for an era where wildfires are increasingly common.

The recent wildfires in California have captured plenty of headlines in recent weeks, with harrowing reports of flames crossing highways and residents scrambling to save themselves and animals. But for the National Fire Protection Association, such events have become close to just another day at the office.

“What we used to talk about when I first got to NFPA 15 years ago was ‘wildfire seasons,’ and that seems to have become a thing of the past,” said Michele Steinberg, Regional Manager for NFPA’s Wildfire Division. “It’s basically year-round that we’re seeing fires all over the place. … Not only California but a lot of places are experiencing more year-round conditions that become just right for ignition to take hold and start a major wildfire.”

”One of the things that we’ve really tried to look at is who needs this information, and in what format.”

Now that wildfire risks are more widespread and constant, NFPA has in recent years been exploring ways to ensure its messages about prevention reach a broader audience. It has a website, Firewise.org, that’s focused on delivering relevant information to communities, and in the past two years, it’s translated more of that information into Spanish. “One of the things that we’ve really tried to look at is who needs this information, and in what format, and we felt like if we didn’t start to really look at Spanish language material that we’d be missing a big part of our audience,” Steinberg said.

To help get the word out, the nearly dozen staffers of NFPA’s Wildfire Division has the assistance of partnerships with organizations such as the U.S. Forest Service and state forest agencies, as well as dedicated events such as Wildfire Community Preparedness Day. (The next one is May 5.) And though the target audience for such communications has typically been adult homeowners, it has also targeted middle-grade and high-school students for the past few years—the “future landowners and homeowners,” as Steinberg put it. Teenagers are old enough to understand the science behind wildfires, NFPA knew, and are able to manage the preventative tasks. All it needed was a program that spoke their language.

To do that, Steinberg said, in 2012 the association began researching the matter, holding focus groups with teens and their families in areas that had experienced wildfires, and talking to teachers in area schools. Most curricula don’t have room for wildfire education in the classroom, Steinberg learned, so the Take Action program focuses on brief videos and information sheets that can deliver the necessary guidance without taking up class time. The program isn’t shy about pushing one theme NFPA knows gets attention—saving pets.

“That’s a great hook to try to get them engaged,” Steinberg said. “A lot of the things we did for the teen audience I think apply to adults as well. [The message] is all around making you think about what could you lose.”

Beyond the broad national programs, NFPA keeps tabs on the social media conversations around wildfires, with a close eye on what messages are connecting and where there seems to be confusion. For instance, Steinberg said she has seen cases during the recent California fires where general calls to evacuate were ignored because a resident didn’t receive a personal order to leave.

“We were seeing a lot of that kind of chatter in social media, as well as in the mainstream media, quotes about people saying, ‘I was waiting to be told, I need permission,’” she said. “That was an eye-opener for us. …The message from the emergency management folks is when there’s an evacuation order, you need to leave. And what is being translated into is, ‘OK, I’ll wait for them to tell me to go, which is not a great idea. We want people to be situationally aware, use their common sense, and have a plan. That’s what our communications really try to focus on.”

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. More »

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