Why Won’t They Just Do What We Tell Them ...

Why Won’t They Just Do What We Tell Them ...

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Sparky practicing according to CDC guidance for proper social distancing behavior in Farmington Hills, Michigan

At the start of the “stay at home" orders in Rhode Island, my 81-year-old father continued his daily habit of going to his varied grocery stores to pick up his fruit and whatever was on sale that week. He’d call me from the store saying, “Can you believe Shaw’s is out of milk!?” to which I would reply, “This is not a game – stay home!”

Fire and life safety educators are often finding themselves banging their heads against the wall, wondering, “What will it take to get people to do what they are supposed to do?”  The fact is, driving behavior change is a complex process under the best and even most dire of circumstances.  Our daily behaviors are rooted in and derived from the interplay of attitudes, beliefs, access to resources, socioeconomics, geography, and cultural norms. Changing behavior, even when motivated to do so, is hard because behaviors are ingrained into our daily lives, have an emotional component (we like our comfort zones), a physical and/or social environmental component, and generally require some form of support to get started.

At this time when people are being asked to double-down on their COVID-19 mitigation efforts, fire and life safety educators are maneuvering through emergency response, code compliance and getting their residents to adopt critically important behaviors for disease and home fire prevention.  As part of their efforts, providing accurate and timely information is essential, especially in times of crisis management. 

Information alone, however, does not equal action.  To support behavior change we must also address people’s perceptions of their personal risk.  Consider those who will admit to having read and/or sent a text while driving.  Most will tell you they know that texting and driving increases the risk of a car crash.  What they often perceive however, is that the risk is increased for the other driver, not for themselves.  People overestimate their perceptions of their driving skills, visual acuity, reflexes, and underestimate the time their eyes off the road making it easier for them to justify what is widely evidenced as risky behavior. 

Getting individuals to make change is the cornerstone of our work and involves engaging people as they conduct their own cost-benefit analysis when making decisions.   It’s the classic “There’s not too much traffic, and I am a good multi-tasker, so I can text while I drive,” conversation that is going on, even subconsciously, in people’s brains, that we find ourselves pushing against and prompting them to reconsider their belief system.   

Another factor in behavior change is what is widely accepted as the three elements needed to move individuals through change.  Regardless of what behavior change model you use, most agree that critical to behavior change are:

It’s not enough to tell people to keep 6 feet apart, or that they need working smoke alarms and an escape plan.  We need to provide people with valid reasons to do it that they can latch onto. Asking people to prevent infection not just for themselves, but for the elders in their life, their healthcare workforce and their first responders is one way we’ve seen public health education efforts motivate people.   

The amazing work being done by our school and community educators in providing digital learning opportunities, and in local businesses providing free delivery services, are examples of providing resources and support, enabling people to stay home and stay connected. 

Tom Malcolm, chief & EMA director (left) and Matthew Farrington, 2nd chief (right) of the Millonocket, Maine Fire Department use persuasive language and visuals to prevent the spread of COVID-19

The reward?  Well, that’s the tricky part. It’s hard to accept a reward for something that doesn’t happen, making “not getting sick” or “not having a home fire” a non-tangible. That’s why so many programs have incentives built in. Yes, people should do things for the right reasons, but getting people to change behavior means sweetening the pot sometimes. Kudos to the Coppell, Texas Fire Department for putting together bags of fire safety education materials to deliver to their residents as both encouragement for home safety and a thank you for doing their part. 

Whether dealing with emergency issues or our constant struggle to get people to adopt proactive fire and life safety behaviors, it’s important that we go beyond information and consider how we are motivating, enabling and rewarding our community members.  Consider how you will use your information and communication channels.   Create the conversation in your social media posts, shape the perception of risk using local data, appeal to the values of your residents through local partnerships (note – the messenger is just as important as the message), and reward and thank your community members for doing their part.  

My sincere thanks to all of you out there doing amazing work every day for the benefit of your community.  For resources to support your fire & life safety education efforts, go to www.nfpa.org/education and stay on top of NFPA’s COVID-19 efforts at www.nfpa.org/coronavirus

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