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Send in the Clowns

Sep 24, 2015 08:57PM ● Published by Kevin

Any teacher can tell you it’s difficult to capture and keep the attention of a large group of children. But when your message involves fire safety it can be a matter of life or death. That’s why a small group of Mansfield firefighters routinely don clown wigs, make-up, and rubber noses while rolling out slapstick humor, song and dance to teach children throughout the community about fire safety. The method grabs their attention.

Fire educational programs using clowns to carry the message are not new. They trace their roots back to fire departments in Arizona in the 1970s. Fire departments these days tend to share and borrow programs and incorporate ideas they like from other programs. Fire safety clowns often write original songs and develop skits to get the message out. Kids seem to learn and retain more when a silly clown is teaching them.

The Mansfield Fire Department has had a Fire Safety Clowns program since 2003. There are six firefighters involved in the program today. Kevin Sandifer is training captain for the department, Kyle Wright is B Shift Lt. at Station 2, David Gilmore is A Shift driver at station 3, Phillip Baker works in administration as fire inspector, Wes Jones and Donald McLaughlin are both firefighters on A Shift.

Phillip Baker was one of the Mansfield Fire Safety Clowns’ charter members and is still going strong today. We asked him to tell us more about the program and how it impacts the community.

Tell us more about the Fire Safety Clowns program in Mansfield? The program was started in 2003 when then firefighter Davey Sanchez approached me, William “Bubba” Franks and Jonathan Mercer about doing a fire safety program. Davey had been a firefighter for The Colony and they had used fire safety clowns there. We loved the idea and we performed in front of city council and at the city Christmas Party that year and the program was born. I am the only original member left in the program, and through the years we have had lots of new faces come through the program.

Who else was involved in planning and building the program? Me, Davey Sanchez, William Franks, Jonathan Mercer were the original clowns. Ronnie Webster, David Gilmore and Robert Mathews were the original soundmen, support and puppeteer.

Describe the development of the program to date. We went from our first set made of cloth and no budget to wonderful sets with amazing sound, TV displays, sound effects and a budget.

So just what does the program do? We educate children through the use of characters and clowns that perform various safety tips using comedy and humor.

What do you like best about working with the program? Teaching children in a positive way that allows them to retain the lesson and put it to use when an emergency arises. We don’t mind wearing make-up. We all are paramedic firefighters and we all share a passion for teaching life and fire safety.

What is your role in the program? I’m ResQ the clown, we each have names. I also aid in building sets, writing scripts, planning school visits and organizing the Safety Palooza event.

Why do you think the program is so effective? It offers education through humor rather than lecture, it’s something children can retain much like when a song gets stuck in your head. The kids relate to the slapstick humor and remember the lessons.

Are kids the only target? No, all ages are encouraged to come out and can learn from us.

What other kinds of safety lessons does the program teach? Anything from Stop, Drop & Roll to Dial 911, don’t play with matches, tools vs. toys, Stranger Danger, drug awareness, buddy system and gun safety, just to name a few.

What does it take to become a fire safety clown? Dedication.

Do you guys get paid to do this? Everyone is paid. We have had help from our citizens fire academy alum one year.

How is the program funded and sustained? Through a very small budget and donations.

What other resources are required for the program to operate? It takes a team effort. We utilize every resource available. We have firefighters that work 24-hour shifts that are part of the program - they are the online personnel. We have 8 to 5 Monday through Friday staff that are a part as well and they are considered administration staff. We coordinate with our fire chiefs in order to make sure that our on shift personnel are covered so as to not take a fire apparatus or ambulance out of service during a performance or during the full day of the Safety Palooza.

How are you raising awareness of the Fire Safety Clowns program and those it serves? Through the Safety Palooza event and various social media tools.

What’s the busiest time for the program? In October it’s all hands on deck. The rest of the year we spend doing our other jobs but around July we start gearing up for the new season. It takes awhile with building sets, writing scripts and practicing to have everything ready to go on the first day of October. Most years we are still practicing and making modifications right up until the curtain opens for the first show.

What happens next? We spend the next weeks moving from school to school all throughout October.

How can someone find out more or make an appointment with the Fire Safety Clowns program? Just contact me for more information. But remember, you can’t schedule the clowns for your birthday parties.

What’s unique about the program? Everyone in it is in it for the right reason; no one was placed here for a certain amount of time as a requirement. We all truly love and enjoy what we do; the joy that we get from entertaining the children, teachers and parents becomes infectious. It’s an amazing feeling to see the kids light up and hear the reactions when the first clown appears on stage or in a crowd. The high fives and smiles are the “paycheck” of the program. Knowing that these kids will, and have, put what they’ve learned into action one day is something that reaches deep down inside you and lets you know that that is the ultimate “High Five”!

Has the program faced challenges and obstacles? Yes, with all programs there’s always a challenge, from members leaving the program to equipment failure in the middle of a show. But it’s those challenges that make our program unique. We use them as learning experiences rather than roadblocks. Losing a valuable member of the team is always hard but very understandable. Over the years we have had great people who came and went. They each made that decision to leave based on taking care of their personal needs. Some had children along the way or some took on new responsibilities within the department. Whatever it was that pulled them away is very understandable and each and every one of them is welcome back at anytime. Some have even left, raised their kids, got promoted, took on new adventures and then returned.

Is there anything else we need to know about the program? It’s a team effort, we all have a common goal to educate and communicate the importance of life and fire safety to all ages of men, women and children. Also big floppy shoes and make-up are a pretty cool uniform, to say the least!

What are your expectations for the program over the next 5 years? Grow the program and maybe create educational videos; increase the amount of participants in the Safety Palooza.

What’s your best memory of being a fire safety clown? At this year’s Pickle Parade a teenager informed me that she was graduating this year and that some of her fondest memories of elementary school from kindergarten up were of the “clown shows” and the lessons she had learned. She told me that on two different occasions during her time in school we had actually brought her on stage to sing and dance with us. When I asked her the lesson we were teaching at the time, without hesitation she stated, “Stop, Drop & Roll” and the EDITH (Exit Drills In The Home) plan song. This of course prompted us to break out into the EDITH song together! So I guess if you asked if the kids retain it, I’d say yes they sure do! 

Written by Kerry Pipes.

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