Clowning around with fire safety

It may look a little funny, but the combination of jokes, songs and goofy fun really helps get across the fire department's important messages about safety.

Backdraft and Highrise perform at Liberty Ridge Elementary School Dec. 14.

Fire safety is nothing to laugh at. Usually.

But as soon as the assembly started Friday at Liberty Ridge Elementary School, the entire auditorium burst into laughter.

Of course, maybe it was the floppy shoes and the red noses worn by East Pierce Fire and Rescue’s very own clown brigade of “Highrose” and “Backdraft,” imparting safety advice in a whole new way.

“It entertaining them,” said Firefighter Marc “Backdraft” Lash. “They laugh, but they really retain it.”

It may look a little funny, but the combination of jokes, songs and goofy fun really helps get across the fire department’s important messages about safety.

Lash and Public Education Specialist Dina Sutherland each don wigs, costumes and a full face full of makeup for their show “Mission: Safety” to teach kids four important lessons: What to do in case of an emergency, what to do if your house is on fire, how to make an escape plan and what to do if the smoke al;arm goes off.

Over the past few months, the team has taken the 25-minute show into 18 schools in five school districts to teach hundreds of kids with a mixture of humor and song.

“A lot of the kids won’t hear these messages any other way,” Sutherland said.

When the East Pierce characterization program was started about five years ago, five members signed up to be part of the troupe, but due to budget cuts, the team is down to Sutherland and Lash, as well as a few non-costumed stage hands who help out.

Lash is the clowning veteran of the pair, having performed in a similar program with a fire department in Arizona, where he noticed that the kids seemed to pay more attention – and remember the information better – when it was provided with a healthy dose of fun.

“They really retained it,” he said. “The clowns stick.”

To see a slideshow of the show, click here.

After taking a job at East Pierce, Lash talked about his experiences and helped start the local troupe.

As training, he and Sutherland each attended clown college at the Arizona Fire Burn Educators Association where they learned the secrets of applying greasepaint and how to work with props and puppets.

The show the pair performed this year was one they saw another department perform and adapted to their needs for their first year performing. During the show, the clowns teach how to how to call 911, the importance of exit drills in the home, what to do if a smoke alarm goes off and how to stop, drop, cover and roll if your clothes catch on fire.

Each segment ends with a song – “Call 9-1-1” to the tune of the Village People’s “YMCA” for example – and the clowns receive a “clue” to help them open a “Fire Safe” that contains valuable information for the kids’ safety.

Throughout the show, the clowns engage the children, urging them to sing along and help them find things hidden on the stage. Teachers are even brought into the act during the segment on what to do if your clothes catch on fire, where they run around at the clowns’ direction before revealing the correct answer (urged on by the kids) of “stop, drop, cover and roll.”

Sutherland said she enjoys seeing the kids faces and while assemblies are less personal than a classroom education experience, the kids are really “dialed in.”

And besides being rewarding, Lash said it was also good fun.

“We get to dress up as clowns and run around on a stage,” he said.

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