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'People are more afraid of buttons and butterflies than they are of a fire'

Exasperated fire officials react to rash of fire deaths
2018-01-12 Samantha Hoffmann Barrie Fire 2
Barrie Fire Public Information Officer Samantha Hoffmann. Sue Sgambati/BarrieToday

Veteran firefighter Samantha Hoffmann Googled the top 100 Phobia List to find out where fire ranks on a list of fears.

Hoffmann has been delivering fire safety messages for 25 years but recent fire fatalities have left her, like so many other fire officials, feeling defeated. 

"Fire didn't make the top 10 of things people are afraid of," said Hoffmann. "It's actually ranked 52. People are more afraid of buttons and butterflies than they are of a fire. So why are we trying to use fear because people think it's just not going to happen to them. It doesn't work."

Ontario's Fire Marshal and Chief of Emergency Management is also expressing his frustration following the very tragic start to 2018.

Eight people have died in four fatal fires during the first ten days of the new year.

Ross Nichols says investigations are ongoing but knowing the cause of the fires won't change their outcome. 

"Regardless of what investigators ultimately determine with respect to the origin, cause and circumstances of these most recent tragic incidents, year after year we investigate fatalities that are both unnecessary and preventable.  'No indication of a working smoke alarm' is a determination I hear repeatedly from my investigators," Nichols said 

"Working smoke alarms, properly installed and maintained, can provide vital early warning of a fire, allowing occupants of a home to escape before it’s too late to do so.  Working smoke alarms - and having a pre-determined fire escape plan - can literally mean the difference between living and dying in the event of a fire."

The Fire Marshal echoes Hoffmann's sentiments about safety messages falling on deaf ears. 

"In spite of how often we deliver this critical lifesaving advice, we simply aren’t reaching everyone.  We also battle complacency with respect to people’s willingness to take responsibility for their own fire safety because nobody truly believes they’ll become a victim of fire."

"People aren't getting it," said Hoffmann. "We've tried being forceful with the message. We've tried scare tactics. We've sang the message. We've danced. We've put ourselves out there in every way possible. The only way I see the message is going to work is through relationships. It has to be every individual person." 

And that means people have to be proactive when they go into homes and see outdated alarms or no alarms at all, she says. 

Barrie Fire's 'After the Fire Program' revealed 76 percent of the homes visited by firefighters are ill equipped or not equipped at all. 

The fire department only does complaint inspections and vulnerable occupancy checks due to staffing constraints. 

It's a landlord's responsibility to ensure units have working alarms but Hoffmann says tenants must also step up. 

"The landlord is not going to die in that fire. Absolutely it's the landlord's responsibility but when it really comes down to it the tenant is the person sleeping in that house. They're the ones that need that time in order to escape.  It's up to you to make sure it's working and that it's installed."

It takes 30 seconds to check the dates, push the buttons and make sure alarms are working and talk about an escape plan, Hoffmann says.

The tragedies and that phobia list have left her pondering a new approach.  

"People are afraid of failure. Well if you don't have a smoke alarm you're failing your family. Maybe that's a different approach.  Everyone has different fears and until we figure out what's going to motivate you to install those alarms and make a plan, we'll be having this conversation for years and years and years."


Sue Sgambati

About the Author: Sue Sgambati

Sue has had a 30-year career in journalism working for print, radio and TV. She is a proud member of the Barrie community.
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