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County recruits firefighting symbol

Fire prevention isn’t rocket science. Most of the tips used to keep a house from burning down consist of plain old common sense:

• Don’t fall asleep when you’re cooking.

• Install working smoke detectors in every room.

• Keep matches and lighters away from children.

• Clean your chimney every year.

• Don’t smoke in bed.

Kitsap County has steadily pushed these messages for years, but is now recruiting some outside help. It is seeking a $250,000 Fire Prevention and Safety Grant from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Domestic Preparedness.

The money will then be used in an unconventional way — to create a fire safety campaign based around an original character called Spouty the Whale.

The Spouty character was conceived by Fire Safety Advisory Board member Chris Britton and is now in the preliminary stage. While Britton’s drawings have yet to be refined, there are grand plans for the character itself.

The county will launch a Spouty Safety Web site featuring the latest common sense tips, along with some that may not be so obvious.

The site will contain black and white drawings for use as educational tools in the classroom, for download and coloring.

The program would also include the development of a Spouty costume, allowing someone to dress as the whale for public appearances on behalf of fire safety.

Fire Marshal Derrick Crawley called Spouty “a take-off on the old Smokey the Bear symbol that can be used for bringing awareness of these issues.”

Crawley said such symbols make the message more palatable.

“This can be more effective with young kids if you approach them with an animated character,” he said. “If they are confronted by a fireman with all that gear, it may take them a while to get over the shock.”

While Spouty provides the public face of the awareness campaign, the grant will offer some substantial benefits. The fire safety educational component will be directed at children and adults.

The second component has to do with tools and equipment to increase effectiveness, such as mobile computers and printers to aid in data collection and investigation.

Such equipment will help the fire marshal determine patterns and notice if there is an increase of fires in a certain geographical area over a short time period.

Crawley said attitudes about fire prevention resemble those toward speeding, where people determine the level of risk they’re willing to accept.

“On many roads, the speed limit is clearly posted,” he said. “But we might know the stretch or we’re running late. So we make the conscious decision that we can handle the high speed and we take that risk.”

Likewise, a young couple with small children will pay a lot more attention to fire prevention minutiae than someone who is single with no dependents.

Chimney safety is also part of the equation. Many people like chopping and burning new wood, or using unseasoned logs because they’re cheaper and more readily available.

Not only are these logs less fuel efficient, however, they also cause a higher accumulation of creosote and require more frequent chimney cleaning.

While chimney cleaning is an essential yearly activity for anyone who burns wood regularly, Crawley said many people go three or four years without doing so.

The increasing popularity of gas fireplaces has created another concern, and homeowners with these appliances should check regularly for any gas leak.

Crawley, 48, has served as fire marshal for 15 years. While he is doing his best to put the grant in place, the whale will not be part of his staff.

The program is expected to grow beyond the Fire Safety Committee’s ability to administer it through the use of volunteers and will use the funding to hire a full-time program administrator to coordinate activities, supplies and equipment.

A part-time coordinator will be in charge of fundraising and program assistance.

Crawley said the county has a good chance to win the grants.

While these options are well-known in the firefighting communities, many departments seek grants designed for direct funding of equipment and personnel.

For this reason, there is less competition for these funds.

Crawley said there is no “fire season.” There is a higher incidence of chimney fires in the winter and brush fires in the dry summer. Carelessness occurs year round.

“If you focus on education and awareness, a lot of accidental fires can be avoided,” Crawley said. “If the occupants of many houses destroyed by fire were more aware, that would have done a lot to mitigate the damage.”

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