One morning in early December, Midland firefighter Mark Laux tucked himself into a corner of Helen Gibbons’ classroom with a red duffel bag and a couple of baskets.
“Will you guys help me today?” he asked the throng of Adams Elementary first-graders sitting on the carpet before him, waiting to see what was inside the bag.
Out came a random assortment of “stuff,” from pliers to a red plastic Slinky. “Toy or tool?” Laux asked the students of each item, depositing them in the appropriately labeled basket. The stream continued with a toy truck, scissors, a screwdriver and measuring tape, the kids handling the correct classification of toy or tool with ease.
Next came a small, green plastic dinosaur, according to the Midland Daily News.
“Can a dinosaur hurt us?” Laux asked.
“Only if it’s real,” one boy zinged back, eliciting giggles from his classmates and Laux.
The visit from Laux is one of what he hopes will be many to Midland Public Schools as part of new fire prevention program recently started by the department.
The department has three life safety educators – Laux, Tyler Alden and Jim Heading – teaching in elementary schools and senior apartment buildings, Fire Marshal Josh Mosher said. The school program teaches kindergarten, first- and second-grade students at Adams Elementary, Blessed Sacrament, Midland Christian School, Midland Academy and Good Shepherd. Topics for the younger crowd include firefighters are your friend, leaving matches and lighters alone, smoke alarms, water safety, poison prevention, bike and pedestrian safety and motor vehicle safety. For the seniors, the information is more of a general presentation about the department, as well as a review of cooking and other hazards common for the age group.
“It’s great,” Laux said of the chance to teach. “They have welcomed us in and it has been an awesome ride.” It’s right up his alley too, as he taught in public education for six years in Saginaw Township. He has served with the Midland Fire Department for eight and a half years, where he is a fire truck operator and fire investigator.
“This is a very exciting program for us to provide to our residents and we hope to see it expand to all of the Midland elementary schools in the coming years,” Mosher said.
About 40 seniors gathered in a conference room at Independence Village on a snowy January day, getting to know all about the department from Heading.
With the help of a PowerPoint presentation he put together a few years ago, Heading walked his audience through the department’s history and statistics: It was established on Jan. 1, 1945; has 46 personnel, 21 of which are firefighters; and three fire stations. In 2014, firefighters responded to 4,526 calls for service, including fires, traffic crashes, medical response, assisting police and more.
He took the opportunity to answer the thing he said he is asked most often: “Why does the big red fire truck respond to medical emergencies?” and explained it’s not unusual for firefighters to reach the address where help is needed faster than an ambulance. That’s because the fire department has stations located throughout the city, while an ambulance comes from the hospital. And if the ambulance is already on a call, then one could be sent from secondary locations around the county: Homer Township, Sanford or even as far away as Coleman. “So, the fire department arrives and gives emergency intervention in a very timely manner … Our goal is to reach everybody in four minutes or less.”
A big focus for Heading was making sure everyone understood not to wait to call for help when they don’t feel well.
“People especially in this age group don’t call,” he said, adding the goal is to get people healthy so they can go back to their home and the way they lived before they became sick. “I would encourage you, if you’re feeling sick, don’t wait … I can’t stress that enough.”
Questions ran the gamut from the serious – how many carbon monoxide detectors are needed for an apartment (one should be sufficient), to what did the ladder truck cost ($1.1 million in 2012) – to the fun: “Can I get a ride in your fire truck?” one man asked. “I’d like to,” Heading replied once the good natured laughter trailed off, offering to return in summer’s more hospitable weather with a truck for the residents to see.
Having a firefighter visit elementary students for 20 minutes once a month, or spend some time at senior living facilities around town, are chances to build positive relationships and more.
Gibbons pointed out D.A.R.E. targets upper elementary, but now the fire department’s program is giving the younger kids some attention.
“It’s been wonderful,” she said, adding the biggest thing with this age group is fear. Laux put on his mask and gear to show the kids what firefighters look like when they work so the children won’t be afraid, but he also showed them who’s wearing all that stuff. “He was a normal guy.”
As an added bonus, Laux’s visits are teaching Gibbons the correct verbiage to use when speaking with students about safety-related topics, she said.
The program allows firefighters the opportunity to showcase the other roles they play in the community – it’s not just fire response, but providing first response for medical 911 calls and traffic crashes – and letting residents know they’re here to help.
Presenting to seniors comes naturally for Heading, who has presented fire safety information to the residents of the city-owned senior housing buildings once a year.
“It’s my favorite group to talk to,” said Heading, who has been a firefighter for 15 years on the department. The opportunity to expand to privately-owned facilities came after a resident in a city-owned building set off a false alarm with a hot pan. She was embarrassed and scared there would be consequences for the alarm, so she hid the pan under cupboards, which in turn scared the firefighters.
“You’re not gonna get in trouble” for a false alarm, Heading reassured his recent audience after telling the tale. “It’s OK, we’ll take care of it.”
One thing was consistent for young and old – everyone loves their firefighters.
Laux couldn’t walk down a hallway at school without students saying hi or high-fiving him.
“Before we moved here, I had a problem and my husband called 911,” Jean Selby, a resident at Independence Village, said after asking if she could skip a question in favor of a compliment. “The firemen got there right away. It took the ambulance 45 minutes to get there. Those guys had me so well taken care of.”
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