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Firefighters get creative about safety

Companies film video to show elementary school students

Sparky the Fire Dalmation climbs the ladder of a fire truck from the City of Altoona Fire Department Tuesday at the Logan Township United Fire Station. Mirror photo by Calem Illig

Fire departments from around the area are working to spread important tips about fire safety during National Fire Prevention Week — Oct. 3-9 — but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve had to come up with some new ideas.

The City of Altoona and Logan Township United Fire Departments joined together with the broadcasting class at Altoona High to create a fire safety video that will be shown to elementary students in the Altoona Area School District.

“We want to keep instilling these tips into their brains and let students know about fire safety,” said City of Altoona Assistant Fire Chief Michael Hawksworth. “This is a little different than usual, but it’s still very interactive and should help the kids learn everything they need to know.”

Hawksworth said his department and Logan Township United have joined forces for fire prevention for the past five years, but due to COVID-19, the departments were unable to spread their message last year.

With more time for planning and preparation, firefighters developed an immersive experience that takes students through real-life scenarios.

Students from the Altoona Area High School’s broadcasting class record City of Altoona firefighter Brandon McElhinny as he provides tips about fire safety Tuesday at the Logan Township United Fire Station. Mirror photo by Calem Illig

Through help with the broadcasting class at Altoona, firefighters put the finishing touches together Tuesday on a comprehensive video that covers all aspects of fire prevention.

“We didn’t have enough time to get something put together this year, but we came in with a plan this year knowing that we were still in a situation where we wouldn’t get to see children face-to-face,” City of Altoona firefighter Brandon McElhinny said. “Having the high school students coming to us and giving us the ability to reach out makes it so much better than doing nothing at all. It’s awesome to be able to do something like this, even though we can’t see these kids in person.”

The program includes several prevention tips such as identifying possible hazards in the home or kitchen and recognizing the value of smoke detectors.

Hawksworth said in his experience as a firefighter, he has witnessed numerous homes and lives saved from a properly-functioning smoke detector.

“Without smoke detectors, we could have had some very unfortunate outcomes,” Hawksworth said. “At night, you’re sleeping, and there’s no other way you are going to know to get out of a house. We constantly preach for everyone to check their batteries monthly and make sure they work.”

City of Altoona Assistant Fire Chief Michael Hawksworth dons his personal protective equipment and records a fire prevention speech for students Tuesday at the Logan Township United Fire Station. Mirror photo by Calem Illig

Hawksworth said individuals who do not have a smoke detector in their home can contact the City of Altoona Fire Department Station 1 at 814-949-2281 to find out how to get one.

Much of the video focuses on ways to prevent a fire, but it also provides important steps to follow in case there is a fire.

Firefighters teach lessons on recognizing the signs of a fire, checking a door for heat, crawling low out of smoke, getting out of the house and staying out.

“We want kids to recognize if there is a fire and know what to do if that happens,” said Rusty Shoenfelt, deputy chief of Logan Township United Fire Department. “We talk about creating an exit strategy, finding two ways out in every room and not wasting any time from getting out of a house.”

The video also focuses on building trust between children and firefighters.

McElhinny said many children may have an initial fear of firefighters, adding that a firefighter’s equipment and breathing apparatus resemble the sound of Star Wars character Darth Vader.

While they may sound scary, McElhinny said firefighters are attempting to teach children not to be scared and that they are there to help.

“We show the students a video of a firefighter getting dressed up in all of their gear so they can see that it is just another person inside all of that equipment,” McElhinny said. “With Halloween coming up, we try to blend that together. It’s like any other scary costume a person may wear. We are all just regular people underneath that mask.”

The video covers all aspects of fire prevention, but firefighters said there is an at-home portion of the project as well.

Parents are asked to review their own fire safety plan with their children and make sure everyone is on the same page about what to do and where to go in case there is a fire.

“We want parents to sit down with their kids and form a plan,” Hawksworth said. “Talk at the dinner table about where your special meeting place is if there is a fire. Sit down with your family and talk to the kids about how to call 911. These are all important skills our kids need to know.”

Shoenfelt said the video will be shown to students over the next few weeks, and while both departments put plenty of sweat equity into the video, firefighters said it will not be a mainstay.

“This is a bridge until the COVID restrictions are reduced,” he said. “We plan to eventually get back to the hands-on fire safety education that we all know and love.”

Mirror Staff Writer Calem Illig is at 814-946-7535.

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