By Jim Crawford
Published Friday, February 20, 2009
| From the February 2006 Issue of FireRescue
Recently I've been part of a group of fire-prevention personnel talking about a national conference for prevention programs. During our discussions, we realized there's sufficient cause to extend prevention programs to address the more common non-fire emergencies we respond to: Approximately 75 percent of our emergency calls (or more) are medical in nature. Of course, prevention programs cannot address many types of medical emergencies, but a program that seeks to prevent falls could eliminate a large number of injuries.
Not surprisingly, many fire marshals support the idea. The problem for most departments: Prevention programs are already underfunded, so prevention managers are understandably reluctant to start new programs. I try not to crow about the Vancouver Fire Department's (VFD) prevention efforts too much, because I know many excellent programs exist, and we have as much to learn as anyone. But I think our efforts provide a good example of how other departments can design fall-prevention programs with relatively few resources.
Partnership Is Key
Falls are the number one type of call we respond to locally, and I suspect other departments experience similar statistics. The amount of time and money lost to fall injuries is astounding. To address this problem, our local emergency medical community decided to pursue a program to retrofit elderly residents' homes with the kind of hardware that would help prevent falls.
We initially used some grant funds to purchase materials such as grab rails for bathrooms, elevated toilet seats and area-rug skid protectors. Next, we needed to obtain the training necessary to assess area residents' homes, so local contractors could install these items. That's when a good friend, Earl Diment of Portland (Ore.) Fire & Rescue, introduced us to a non-profit group called Unlimited Choices (UC).
UC performs the very same activities we aimed to do-conduct home assessments and install necessary hardware. Its goal (and ours): Keep elderly residents in their homes longer, thus reducing expenses associated with assisted care, while also preventing falls. UC staff measure statistics in both areas over a period of time to see exactly what kind of results the program produces.
So where did the VFD come in? In addition to partnering with UC to increase its fall-prevention efforts, we realized the target audience for serious fall injuries (mostly seniors, in our case) is the same target audience for fire risk. Before long, we had increased the partnership's activities to include installing smoke alarms and heating element protectors into seniors' houses. In addition, we conducted a pilot test of portable (canned) fire extinguishers that fit under residential cooking hoods. Printed materials and a face-to-face visit by UC staff further adds to seniors' motivation to be fire safe.
Funding & Advertising
We applied for and received a FIRE Act grant to put this multi-hazard fire- and life-safety program into place. I must admit that after securing the funding, we didn't have to do much more than refer our residents to UC for service, and the job was done. UC staff now include a fire-safety element in all their jobs; long after the FIRE Act funds have been spent, the group continues to provide these services with funds they receive from Community Block Grant Development and other sources. Our medical partners have been eager participants in helping us obtain funding.
In addition, the VFD's public education coordinator, Marilyn Westlake, developed an advertising campaign to reinforce fall-prevention messages. Westlake partnered with the Southwest Washington Medical Center to place low-cost television ads on the local cable system. The cable company's marketing staff help us air the spots during programs that match our target audience's viewing habits. Such a media component takes serious time to set up, but once developed, it can reach thousands of members of a target audience with minimum oversight.
The Bottom Line
We hope our fall-prevention program will produce measurable results by reducing fall injuries and keeping elderly residents safe in their homes. This is a partnership where our partners did most of the work, and it met our organizational goals. If you're interested in designing a fall-prevention program, there may be organizations similar to UC in your area; if there aren't, perhaps the interest alone will stimulate the creation of such groups.
There's no doubt our fire-prevention efforts are already severely limited. But partnerships like the one the VFD has with UC make clear that we can-and should-consider expanding our efforts to include injury-control programs.
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