Student-lit blaze at Madison school puts spotlight on fire department’s educational programs
The Madison Fire Department tries to educate young fire-setters about the dangers of their actions before they do further damage to the community.Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger
For Bernadette Galvez, a child setting a fire is no small matter — she knows that if preventative measures are not taken when kids are young, curiosity about fire can lead to dangerous behavior and serious disciplinary action when they get older.
Galvez runs the Madison Fire Department’s Children and Fire Program, which saw its name in the news recently after a blaze, set by a student, broke out at Hawthorne Elementary School on the city’s east side. The fire was extinguished and no one was hurt, but the child responsible was referred to Galvez’s program.
The offending student is exactly the type of child that MFD targets for its educational efforts. The Children and Fire Program’s main purpose is to take young offenders — usually those who engaged in “curious fire-setting,” Galvez says — and teach them about the danger a fire can cause to the community. Another goal, equally important, is to make sure these children never set another fire, and thus avoid causing themselves greater harm by getting in trouble with the law.
“Kids when they see me will ask ‘am I going to jail’?” Galvez said. “No, you’re not going to jail, we’re trying to prevent that.”
The program has been around since the mid-1990s, but it has become increasingly important as smoking has become less common among parents, according to Galvez. Because fewer adults smoke now, some children may have very little experience with fire, lighters or matches.
When a juvenile offender is referred to Galvez, she generally meets with both the child and the family to talk about preventative measures. After the educational program is over, Galvez has the child sign a contract promising to never set a fire. In nearly all cases, she says, it works.
“I tell them, you can’t touch matches, you can’t touch lighters — this is a really serious thing you did,” Galvez said. “Sometimes the little kindergartners pinky swear with me … with little kids, if you break a pinky swear, it means the world to them.”
The program is designed for children as young as two years old. It may seem overly cautionary, but Galvez claims “catching them young” is key to prevention of future fire-setting.
Children as old as 17 can be referred to Galvez as well, but she says most of the time those offenders are sent to intake, where they are fingerprinted and photographed. No one at the fire department wants to see that happen, Galvez says, which is why so many of its programs are focused on younger children.
In addition to the Children and Fire program, the fire department gives safety presentations at area schools, runs a “fire safety aerobics program” for children, and even employs a mascot: Oscar the Firedog. The goal of all these efforts is to impress the seriousness of fire-related situations on younger kids.
“Children do not know the consequences of what happens if fire gets out of control,” Galvez said. “One match can wipe a whole town out.”Subscribe to The Daily Cardinal Newsletter