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Solon fire department continues decades-old tradition of education

Lakeview students still learning the basics of fire safety
Amelia Guinn (front) and Brilee Moeller practice fire safety by crawling out of Lakeview Elementary’s small gymnasium after a presentation by Solon firefighters Oct. 7. (photo by Doug Lindner)

SOLON– One by one, kindergarten students at Lakeview Elementary got up on their hands and knees and crawled out of the small gymnasium to the lobby where a fire engine was waiting outside.
It’s the same thing they should be doing if there’s smoke in their home– it’s a lesson taught every year by members of the Solon Tri-Township Fire Department.
Stay low and go.
“We try to touch on some key points every time,” explained Capt. Tim Bell.
Know 911 and your address; get out and stay out; know your meeting place and practice your EDITH (Exit Drill In The House); and if your body is on fire, stop, drop and roll.
If most of those sounded familiar, it might be because of firefighters like those of Solon, who return to Lakeview every October for Fire Prevention Week.
Lakeview has had a long-standing relationship with its emergency personnel and firefighters, according to Lakeview Principal Jodi Rickels. “Students become familiar with safety equipment and hear many important messages: know your escape plan, check your smoke detectors, determine a meeting place, and be smart about fire safety,” she stated.“We are so grateful the Solon fire department makes this a priority and is willing and able to meet with our students each year to reinforce fire safety both at school and at home,” she added.
Bell has been responsible for overseeing the department’s prevention and education efforts for the last three years.
“Hopefully, emergencies don’t happen to anybody,” Bell said. “But I’m a career firefighter and I’m a volunteer firefighter, and it happens.
“It’s better to have the knowledge ahead of time and not need it than not know it and be in the dark. It just increases your chance of a better outcome.”
Bell and his team make presentations to students by grade level inside the small gym, followed by a tour of the fire engines outside.
He’s learned the toughest thing is to customize each delivery to make it age-appropriate.
“A fourth grader knows when you’re talking to them like a kindergartner,” he explained.
Along with the important touch points of fire safety, they also discuss what is and what is not an emergency, what a smoke detector sounds like and what a firefighter does for the community.
If you drop your Gameboy in the bathtub, is that an emergency?
“You’d be surprised. In the mind of a child, that is an emergency,” Bell said.
So the firefighters describe carefully-phrased, real-life examples to help students differentiate between what feels important and what really is.
Bell said he tries to use terminology that isn’t too confusing or graphic to illustrate the difference between an inconvenience and somebody’s well-being.
“These are some events that seem bad when they happen, but don’t require the attention of emergency responders,” he said.
Your mom locked the keys in the car, he tells the kids. Is that an emergency?
No, but what if someone young is in the car?
Or, what if your neighbor was on a ladder and fell and won’t wake up?
“I think it helps them understand,” he said.
And, while it’s mostly about safety and well-being, the presentations also helps kids get accustomed to what a firefighter looks like and what he or she does for the community.
At the Oct. 7 presentation, probationary firefighter Janelle Vander Molen showed students how she looks every day compared to when she is on the job as a firefighter.
Starting from a T-shirt and jeans, she gradually donned her turnout gear, including oxygen mask and tank, and then crawled across the floor as she would while searching for someone in a smoke-filled building.
“It’s to minimize the intimidation factor,” Bell said. “A firefighter in full protective ensemble is quite striking. They’re larger– they wear brighter colors, big helmets, their faces are often covered– so they can be intimidating to a smaller person.”
Allowing children to see the firefighter before and after helps them understand it’s still a person, even though you can’t see their face, he added.
Students learn there are a few fires to fight each year, but the members of the department spend most of their time on duty assisting ill and injured people.
“In a town that’s only served by volunteers, we often get called upon to address a wide variety of emergencies and non-emergencies,” Bell said. “Sometimes we’re just a helping hand.”
Those ties with the community run deep.
The Solon fire department has been operating a fire safety program in the school system for decades, but Fire Prevention Week has been around since 1920.
On the 40th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, the Fire Marshals Association of North America (now the International Fire Marshals Association), decided that the anniversary devastating blaze should be observed with education of the public regarding the importance of fire prevention.
Fire Prevention Week was established in 1920, and since 1922 has been observed in early October.
Fire Chief Bob Siddell moved to Solon and attended kindergarten in the mid-1960s and remembers his class being visited by the department’s members.
Retired longtime department member Marv Stastny said the department has been delivering the program ever since he can remember.
“I came on in ’62, and it was before that,” Stastny said.
It’s not lost on Bell.
When he introduced firefighters, he asked them if they had been students at Lakeview, and about three-quarters of the department members raised their hands.
“They were once children watching the same program they now delivered,” he said. And the teachers remember the members as students, even though it may have been decades since they were in school, Bell added.
“It shows that we may be considered a bedroom community, but there’s a lot of people who grew up here that stay here, and contribute back,” he said.
The department members also give safety talks at the Old Gold Diner, and sponsor the Battery Up program (coming up Saturday, Oct.29) through which firefighters change smoke detector batteries and identify fire safety hazards by appointment at area residences.
Bell said the department is also developing an extension of the Lakeview program for middle school and potentially high school ages.
“We hate to abandon the fire prevention and education when they leave the elementary,” Bell said.
It’s important to teach skills that might help save someone in the future.
“It’s getting kids off on the right step,” he said.
Knowledge is a powerful tool, and we’re usually we’re afraid of what we don’t know, he continued, but the information imparted on Solon students by area firefighters might just help protect them in the future.